The Saddle Lake Cree Nation, northeast of Edmonton, is investigating human remains believed to be of children found near the former Blue Quills Residential School site.
Eric Large, a residential school survivor, said in August 2017 he was doing work excavating new grave sites at the Saddle Lake community cemetery when he unexpectedly uncovered human remains.
“I came across some small bones. I couldn’t tell what they were, from what parts of the body,” Large told reporters on Tuesday.
“For myself, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do, except suggest putting them back into the same gravesite.”
At a media event on Tuesday, community members said since around 2004 people have been accidently uncovering unmarked graves and a possible mass grave site.
Last year and following the announcement that more than 200 potential burial sites at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Saddle Lake Cree Nation formed a group called the Acimowin Opaspiw Society to investigate possible burial sites.
Large is the lead investigator and said Catholic Church records obtained by the society show 212 children died at the school which operated until 1931.
“It can be safely stated that in our community of 12,000 people, each family has had four to five children who went missing from this institution,” Large said.
Jason Whiskeyjack, a Saddle Lake Cree Nation councillor, said he has also accidently found human remains over the years.
“I try to find a way to block it out of my mind,” he said. “None of these skeletal remains were in caskets. None of the graves had markings of any sort, such as cross of head stones. All the skeletal remains were the size of young children.”
The First Nation is now asking community members to come forward to map a family tree, in an effort to identify the missing children.
“A lot of us have family members that we didn’t even know died in this institution and families never told us,” Leah Redcrow, director of stakeholder engagement for Acimowin Opaspiw Society. said.
“None of the mothers were there to witness their children being buried, even though they lived down the road.”
The Acimowin Opaspiw Society is also hoping for funding support for ground penetrating radar.