Walking around the cairn, squinting at the fading letters, I found a brief answer to my questions of how these bodies came to be here and how these people died.
There carved into the stone:
“Commemorating the resting places of those who have been called to the home of the Great Spirit from the family circles of Indian (Dene and Métis) and Inuit peoples. The majority died of Tuberculosis at the Charles Camsell Hospital between 1946 and 1966. Transportation difficulties to areas of origin made it necessary for burials at this location.”
But I wanted to know more about the story of the cairn, the Aboriginal Cemetery, and the list of names. Luckily Google told me some of this information was available in the archives of the St. Albert Musée Héritage Museum. So the same morning I visited the cemetery, I combed through the Aboriginal Cemetery fonds, one regulation-sized archival box with a handful of file folders separating out the sections.
In one of those file folders I found typed out lists of the names. The same names as were on the cairn, but with extra information that didn’t get included. There were odd letter-number combinations after some of the names: Susie Oviluk, W1-378. I stared at them for awhile unknowingly, then realized what they were: they referred to the identification disk numbers the Federal government assigned to Inuit beginning in 1941 to help them keep track of individuals and administer services. Non-indigenous government agents had trouble with the Inuit names and naming traditions; rather than try to understand, accommodate, and respect these traditions, they assigned numbers, sometimes dubbed “Eskimo dog tags.”
After Project Surname in the early 1970s, these numbers began to disappear from view as Inuit closed the door on this particular colonial policy. [Now, interestingly enough, the numbers are being reclaimed by young Inuit and Inuvialuit across the Arctic]
So Susie Oviluk, W1-378, was from the first Western District and was the 378th individual counted by the government agents. Ootak Kakeeanook, E4-345, was from the fourth Eastern District.
There were also tallies in the files:
- 62 Inuit
- 6 Dene (NWT)
- 17 from Yukon
- 1 from Saskatchewan
- 1 from Manitoba
- 1 from BC
- 10 from Alberta
But in those lists and tallies, something didn’t quite add up: In the original typed list from 1984 in the archives there were blank numbered spaces among the 98 names. 10 blank spaces, to be exact. I counted. Do they mean anything? Is there anyone still around who would know? Do you know?