Family and Ceremony

June 22, 1990 was a sunny, hot and dusty day out at the Aboriginal Cemetery. A prairie wind whipped decorations and papers as government and church and hospital representatives got ready to dedicate the cairn.

The crowd of about seventy-five people had just been bused in to the cemetery grounds from the seniors centre in St. Albert, where a luncheon was put on. The sound of a bagpipe started up and cut through the rustle of leaves and murmur of voices. Behind Don McLeod, the piper, Cst. Myra Thiemann and Cpl. Ken Munro marched in full RCMP red serge. Behind them walked the dignitaries slotted to speak on the stage decorated with planters donated by local luminaries Lois and Ted Hole.

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The City of St. Albert in 1990 said it would send copies of the programme and photograph of the cairn to any family members who contacted them about loved ones buried there.

The Mounties took their place beside the cairn, standing at honour for the half hour programme emceed by Dr. Del Tusz, Chief of the Department of Medicine from Camsell Provincial Hospital. Then there were a few words by Richard S. Fowler, Solicitor General for the Government of Alberta and former Mayor of St. Albert). Mayor Anita Ratchinsky and former Mayor Ron Harvey of the City of St. Albert also spoke, and Archdeacon Victor Kerr and Reverend Cyril Cutting both said prayers on behalf of the Anglican and United Churches.

The most moving of the speeches, I found, was Nellie Cournoyea’s. She was Minister of Health for the NWT Government. Like quite a few of the people I’ve met from the Western Arctic, her mother was Inuvialuit and her father was Scandinavian — a Norwegian trapper.

Among the crowd was Alexina Kublu, executive director of the Kitikmeot Regional Council of Cambridge Bay; her family was still searching for a great-grandfather who died of TB in a southern hospital. Looking at the choppy video footage of the event at the St. Albert Heritage Museum archives, I analyzed the program and scanned the crowd, looking for other signs of indigenous involvement. There were precious few.

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The archival records told me why.

In the two years it took the monument organizing committee – made up of Elva Taylor, Dr. Otto Schaefer, and Maxine LeClair of the Camsell, and Don McBride of the Edmonton Residential School – to raise funds and plan the cairn, it tried to reach out to local indigenous groups without luck. In fact, as far back as 1979, new City Clerk Fiona Daniel had sent letters to various indigenous organizations to ask questions about the cemetery, the plaque and the cairn without much response.

I recently asked Erin Ellis, the St. Albert Gazette journalist who helped bring the story of the unmarked graves to light, why she thought this was. “I don’t really know why there was so little uptake in the Aboriginal community at the time,” Ellis says. “Maybe they thought it was a bad idea, or paternalism, or they were concerned with other things.”

Local indigenous advocate Miranda Jimmy adds: “The fact it was former employees of the Camsell could have stopped that communication in its tracks.”

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They’re all good theories. After all, it was in the 1980s and 1990s that stories of residential school abuses and inter-generational trauma really started surfacing. That would certainly have kept organizations busy.

And while the City and monument committee had great intentions “to do a culturally-appropriate ceremony”, what kind of relationships had they built? Had they reached out to have someone on the organizing committee? Or were they looking for token consultation or representation when they asked Bishop Sperry to have “a member of the native clergy on hand” and if there was any “music or ritual, in conjunction with their burial services that should be included in the ceremony here?”

Finally, what kind of legacy did the Camsell have with indigenous people? Former Nursing Director and monument committee chair Elva Taylor told a journalist, “We were like one big family at the Charles Camsell.” Did patients feel the same way about the Camsell?

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