Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify that there are believed to be unmarked graves in Camsell Indian Hospital.
The truth is painful, and for Lorelei Mullings and Andrea Jenkins, this last year has been filled with a lot of truth. They are grieving the discovery of unmarked graves found at former residential school sites across Canada.
“This is about the truth coming out and people understanding what Indigenous people have gone through — Metis, Inuit and First Nations,” Jenkins said.
“A lot of people don’t want to believe it.”
The pair wanted to be able grieve and honour those lives. When the 751 unmarked graves were found in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, that is when they both knew they needed to do something.
“I am a school teacher, I work on my reserve with grade two students,” Mullings said. “Thinking about all these unmarked graves, and loved babies, and children being found was heartbreaking.”
Jenkins and Mullings started gathering at the former Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, where there are also believed to be unmarked graves, both children and adults.
“A lot of the time when people died at Charles Camsell, they couldn’t afford to send them back home. But what was so upsetting was their families were never notified,” Mullings said.
“Enoch had to take them, St. Albert cemetery, other places in Edmonton…. would just bury these people with no records.”
Mullings said they expected to be at that site for seven days, wrapping up on Canada Day. As people kept showing up to ask questions or come to share, they realized people needed this.
For 50 straight days they held gatherings with whoever wanted to come.
“We finished after 7 weeks and suggested to go to Enoch’s second gravesite (near Winterburn Road.). We stayed there for 15 days with a teepee. It stayed standing for six days,” Mullings said.
Jenkins said at first it was really heavy, but there was a lot comfort to be found from being able to grieve with other people.
“(We had) a lot of ceremonies honouring those who have passed, those who have been hurt during their time in residential schools, and honouring those who are still around,” Jenkins said.
“I feel quite happy to know that we were able to bring some sort of healing to some of these individuals.”
Now the pair is at a third site, known as Enoch Cree Nation’s first unmarked grave site at 7301 199 St. NW.
Each location Mullings has built a ceremonial fire. It’s a place for people to come to reflect, share stories and to listen.
“Once I come here I don’t want to leave. I feel comfortable,” Mullings said. “The best thing we can do is keep praying, having that fire and spread awareness because those loved ones, they didn’t have a voice.”
“Creator sends people to be messengers, and I want to be that messenger, and I am doing this from the heart.”
They will be gathering September 24, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sept. 25 & 26 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
On Orange Shirt Day September 30th, they will be laying flowers at all three sites, and at 11 a.m. they will be at Enoch’s first unmarked gravesite to hold one last gathering.
“I think it’s really important for non-Indigenous people to take the time to listen, take the time to be respectful to that Indigenous person they see on the street who is asking for something to eat,” Jenkins said.
“Because they don’t understand where many of us come from, what we’ve experienced, the sexual abuse, the physical abuse, the intergenerational trauma, take the time to understand, take the time to try and be kind.”
Their efforts will not stop, shifting online to their Facebook group ‘Free Our Indigenous Children’.