As we saw in yesterday’s post about Winnie Lyall and her mother, Nipisha, each name on the cairn connects with real, live people and family members – often in distant locations. Sometimes, as in the case of Nipisha Lyall (of Taloyoak, NWT) and Peter Kamingoak of Coppermine, NWT, they knew which southern city their loved ones had been buried in. Kamingoak’s young son and wife were both at the Camsell in 1950 being treated for TB. When his son, William (Kamincook on the cairn – spellings could be creative) died at 16 months, his mother was too sick to go to his funeral.
Betsy Blackjack’s name is also on the cairn. Her family in Carmacks, Yukon never forgot her, but they weren’t sure where she had been buried. Her great-grandson, George Evans contacted various people looking for info about her in 1984 on behalf of her son, Clyte Blackjack. His query ended up on the desk of St. Albert City Clerk Fiona Daniel.
Fiona had stepped into the position in 1979 and replied to him in a letter. She wrote to him of her five-year search for information about who was buried in the Aboriginal Cemetery, and she encouraged him to pursue it politically as they had exhausted all bureaucratic roads, as she put it. Once the list came to light, Fiona wrote the Blackjack family again and told them she had discovered Betsy had died November 10, 1952 and was indeed buried in the cemetery in St. Albert.
I learned that by the 1980s there was increasing pressure by indigenous northerners to find out what had happened to the loved ones sent south between the 1940s and 1960s and who never returned. It wasn’t until 1989, though, that the territorial government in the NWT instituted a program to finding missing relatives – and graves – in southern Canada. Even now there are still indigenous people who died in Indian Hospitals or Indian Residential Schools whose final journeys and resting places are undocumented.
A couple of blog posts ago, I mentioned that I had found ten blank spaces in the archival list of those buried in the Aboriginal Cemetery. One reader had what would have normally been an excellent suggestion for tracking them down: check the death records in St. Albert.
Fiona Daniel tried this. She chased down leads locally, in the NWT and Ottawa. First she looked for a plot plan and cemetery records in 1979. She tried the United Church, which had run the Edmonton Residential School where the cemetery was located. Someone suggested the information might have gotten bundled in with the Residential School records and sent to National Archives in Ottawa, so she tried there too.
She was completely unsuccessful until 1987 when she was tipped off by St. Albert Gazette reporter Erin Ellis that former Camsell nursing director Elva Taylor had tracked the list down. It had been in the possession of Beatrice Clough, the widow Archdeacon C. F. A. Clough, the Chaplain of the Charles Camsell from 1946 to 1968. Elva had led the Charles Camsell Historical Society which had put out a book in 1985. The list was now in the Camsell fonds at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
According to Elva Taylor in a later interview: “This all started when someone from the Duffield [Alberta] area went to the Camsell for their proof of birth…He was referred to the Anglican Archdeacon who kept the records. Although the church leader had died 20 years before his widow was able to find a list of names.”
In many ways, Fiona Daniel, Elva Taylor, and the families of those buried in the Aboriginal Cemetery were lucky. According to one of my colleagues, Patricia Barkaskas, the information can’t always be found:
“When I was doing research for the Settlement I know that there were sometimes unidentifiable people – folks whose identity may not have been recorded anywhere or who died at the Residential Schools and were buried there, but for whom no other information was known. This was most often the case when the records of the particular school were poorly kept or simply unavailable (never existed or destroyed at some point). There were many graveyards at the schools with numerous unmarked graves and no way to identify who may have been buried in these plots. If there was no way to identify the person i.e.: no record of the death or burial and just an unmarked grave.”
Apparently this could also be the case at Indian Hospitals in Canada. And it would have been the case for 98 people who died at the Camsell had it not been for persistent families, committed individuals, and a woman keeping her husband’s papers safe for twenty years.