Many people have asked me why it was so hard to figure out who was buried there, and why to this day you can’t see where each body was laid to rest. Usually, it’s because they want to know why they can’t visit the exact spot their loved one is.
Like much of the history of native-newcomer relations author Thomas King and others have outlined, it’s basically a story of land and jurisdiction.
Between 1946 and 1966 when indigenous Camsell patients were buried at the cemetery on the Edmonton Residential School property, the land was controlled by the Federal Government. But it was the kids from the residential school (technically wards of the state) who dug and tended the graves. When the school closed in 1968, those caretakers were gone. Then, Fiona Daniels at the City wrote in a memo, residents of Poundmaker’s Lodge began caring for the site “as a respect measure, until the time the cemetery was transferred to the City.”
That happened in the 1970s, but by the time the “Old Indian Cemetery” hit administrators’ radars, it was overrun by weeds and waist-high grass.
According to Elva Taylor, the former nursing director at the Camsell, “Originally, metal markers had been placed on each grave but later wooden crosses were used…. Unfortunately, one spring or autumn, the dry grass caught fire and a number of the crosses were damaged.”
This was an understatement. The wooden crosses, which were painted white, had been rendered illegible save two: “Owen Joe – son of Chief Joe – 18 years – 1949” and “Kidlak – July 1916 – October 1965”. The crosses weren’t even in place anymore by the 1980s but were stacked in a pile on one corner.
To restore the cemetery, John Beedle, Parks Planner for the City of St. Albert, received a small grant and did a lot of work. According to an internal report prepared in 2000, the land was uneven with “sunken graves and piles of clay”, and when equipment was brought in to level the land, it “revealed the outlines of the disturbed soil of each grave.” John was able to produce a rough drawing of the configuration of graves based on this, and Don McBride, former Camsell administrator, redrew the lost cemetery plot plan from memory.
John Beedle – and the others interested in the Aboriginal cemetery’s restoration – wanted it to be a beautiful, park-like setting, so they trucked in topsoil and grass seed along with mature trees.
They also wanted to commemorate the history of the site and so brought in the huge boulder you see there today, and in 1988 – before they had all the names of those buried – attached a plaque: “Aboriginal Cemetery, 1946 – 1966.”
The boulder had been found at the side of a road about twenty kilometers from St. Albert near Lac La Nonne. But Dr. Otto Schaefer, a doctor who worked extensively in the North, said it didn’t seem local, so he sent photos and samples to a professor of Glaciology at the University of Alberta, Dr. Norman Catto. It turned out the boulder was two and a half billion years old and originally from Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. It had been transported uphill on a glacier and deposited near St. Albert when the glacier receded.
A northern boulder standing guard over a graveyard of mostly northern people. There was some poetry in that.
But maybe the boulder and plaque weren’t enough. In a newspaper interview around this time, Ray E. Harris of the Gitxsan Nation in B.C., who had been a student at the Edmonton Residential School, wanted to see a memorial put on the school site next door to the cemetery. “When you don’t do that, their spirits wander.” Maybe the Aboriginal Cemetery needed a proper memorial with all the names of the dead too.