In the few short months I have been looking into the histories of the Camsell, I have come across my fair share of rumours, conspiracy theories, and suspicions – many online in the usual places like Facebook and Reddit. This post from 2010 on a blog by an Edmontonian called It’s Not Always About Me sums them up:
The hospital shifted from that of a Tuberculosis hospital to that of an “experimental” one run by the United Church and the Department of Indian Affairs. We can only imagine the horrors that took place behind the walls of the Charles Camsell. There are reports of abuse and murder taking place here, and a denied rumour says that there is a mass grave of aboriginal children located on the south side of the building, in what used to be the staff garden.
There are factual inconsistencies in this paragraph, and no evidence here beyond links to similarly vague statements. But that doesn’t mean it has no meaning. So much documentation and memories have surfaced during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission around Residential Schools in this country, and recent books like James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains, Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood, and Mark Abley’s Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, have pushed conversations around colonialism into public consciousness. I read recently that when allegations of abuse first surfaced around the residential schools, some people disbelieved them simply because they were so horrific.
So while that blog post could just be rumours that will be debunked, we still need to investigate. Just last year, scholar Ian Mosby published research about nutritional experiments on indigenous adults on reserves and children in residential schools. In an article about him and his findings by Miriam Schuchman, it is clear that he has uncovered just the tip of the iceberg:
“One of the things that’s happened almost every time I’ve talked to a survivor or an elder is suggestions of more experiments,” he said. Mosby has been following up on letters he’s received from residential school survivors since his article came out, including one in August from an anonymous writer who talked about communities where dentists may have been literally pulling teeth for research purposes….
To Mosby the bottom line is simple: “When aboriginal people say that they were experimented on, we need to take that seriously and look into it.”
I am committed to looking seriously into all the rumours and stories and memories. When I am told by Miranda Jimmy that not all the kids lost at the Camsell were because of illness or death, but were “sometimes adopted out to families [in the city]”, I will take it to heart.
I will also do all I can to help connect people with information about their loved ones. There are still those ten blank spaces on the St. Albert Aboriginal Cemetery list to figure out. I hope it turns out that they were people whose families were able to take them home, as Sheila Willis suggested on Facebook.
But it’s also possible my colleague Patricia Barkaskas’s theory is on the mark:
“Perhaps the spots were left blank to indicate that there was a grave and a body, but no other information about who the people buried in these graves were,” she suggested. “It is sad but true that this would not be unusual.”
Or Samantha McCrea Morin’s comment yesterday could be the reason for the spaces:
And I have other lingering questions, such as:
1. If the Aboriginal Cemetery in St. Albert was where Anglican or United Church patients who died at the Camsell were buried, where were the Catholics brought?
2. Are there indigenous patients from the Camsell buried at Beechmont or Winterburn Cemeteries in Edmonton? Or the “Aboriginal burial ground on the south side of the Whitemud [highway]” that one person alluded to? I saw in a 1975 internal memo for Albert Public Works there was a request to have a Jack Ehagitatok interred in St. Albert but he was buried elsewhere in Edmonton as the Aboriginal Cemetery was not registered with Health Inspection Services Branch of Alberta Health & Social Development. Where was he laid to rest?
3. How many are like High Arctic MLA Ludy Pudluk who only found out in 1990, decades after his grandmother left for treatment, that she was buried in Hamilton, near the Mountain Sanatorium. “It was a shock because I thought she was somewhere else like Edmonton or Montreal. Nobody ever even told us where she went, where she was buried,” he told journalist Erin Ellis.
How many people are still missing? How many people are still looking for answers about loved ones who left and never returned?
I accept and embrace the fact that the Camsell – and these questions – will haunt me while I write grant applications and wait for results, and hopefully get the opportunity to keep chasing these elusive ghosts and filling these blank spaces.