From Haunting to Understanding

I was walking around my new neighbourhood here in Houston, Texas, and all the pumpkins, witches and ghosts decorating homes got me thinking about the Charles Camsell Hospital and how far we’ve come.

In 2014, when I first started researching the Camsell in earnest, most news stories and internet hits talked about its status as a haunted building. There were “Top 10 Edmonton Haunted Sites” lists and shivery stories about breaking in after dark. But, as I’ve been learning, urban legends keep knowledge shallow. They keep us from looking into the complex nature of places and experiences, and the roles we play in them.

This video was released in May by the Inuvialuit History Timeline project.

I knew the Camsell’s story was deeper than that, and intimately connected to the work Canadians are doing around reconciliation. I wanted to dig into the history, but didn’t want to repeat past mistakes. So last year, when I set up this blog, I tried to do it with as much humility and compassion as I could. I’ve had missteps, to be sure, but I have learned from them. This blog has also connected me with the “Camsell Community,” as I’ve come to think of it – all those former patients, staff members, volunteers, and others – as well as other researchers, artists and spiritual leaders who are trying to make sense of this building’s history and legacy.

These individuals, and Edmonton as a whole, have made huge leaps toward understanding in the past two years. There are so many people passionate about holding these bits and pieces up to the light, finding answers, and moving toward reconciliation. There are Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics at the University of Alberta (and other institutions) contributing their skills, for example, to create an archival finding aid families can use to track down information about loved ones. Others are building knowledge about the Occupational Therapy Program and the arts and crafts patients created while at the hospital.

In April of this year, the Edmonton Heritage Council (EHC) hosted a gathering of Elders, former patients and staff, community organizations, and academics at a symposium. All the videos, reports and other information presented and discussed can be found on its website by clicking here.

The EHC also commissioned a short documentary, Camsell, that has been screened to sold-out audiences (free of charge) this fall, followed by Q&A sessions. It will soon be online and I’ll link to it when it’s up.

After the first screening, the Edmonton City as Museum Project podcast team asked people about their experiences at the Camsell, which led to an insightful 10-minute recording (below). It really shows, in quick fashion, how many voices are woven together in this work.

Finally, in book form, Maureen Lux released her work on the Indian Hospital system in Canada, Separate Beds, this spring (from University of Toronto Press). And I’ve been told Gary Geddes has a title coming out early next year on the topic, Unbundled Medicine, from Heritage House, based on his interviews with Elders who were at Indian Hospitals across Canada.

My own work continues as well, for Joseph Elulik’s family, who have been wonderful in their support and understanding on this journey. And for me and other Canadians of all backgrounds who want to know better – and do better. I just keep taking small, tentative steps forward, testing my approach, doing self-reflection, and trying to understand.

Spring 2016 Update: Breaking New Ground

There is something about the long Edmonton winter. The snow lays on the ground, freezing it, making construction hard and digging up answers sometimes harder. But I like to think of it the way some farmers and other folks have talked about it with me: the earth is lying fallow, gathering energy and strength for spring.

Before I left for Houston, TX in January, I madly copied anything related to the Camsell Hospital’s history at the Edmonton Archives and Provincial Archives of Alberta. I was able to save a few trees by digitally copying much of it, but I still created a veritable snowstorm of paper from any collection or fonds or newspaper I thought might have something useful. I have copied just about every single page from the Camsell Arrows and Pictorial Reviews that were put out by the hospital staff and patients over 20+ years. You can’t tell by looking at my new home office, but in that hard drive and rolling file boxes are a mountain of information.

I also trudged out to Winterburn Cemetery in the deep January snow with Laura from Alberta Culture and looked for – well, anything. She had sent me some information and maps, and agreed to meet me and my rowdy three-year-old who was off from preschool that day. But beyond this lovely monument, the snow was hiding any clues as to what might lie beneath.

Henday Cemetery 4

Still, I was able to pass along that photo and much information to Cathy, Louisa and their family members, and earlier this month I was able to walk the cemetery with them. Because this is where we believe Joseph Elulik, Louisa’s father and Cathy’s grandfather, is laid to rest, along with several other Catholic patients who died at the Camsell Hospital.

L-R: Louisa Baril, Dr. Sara Kormanisky, Cathy Aitoak, and me.

There are still many mysteries we’re working to unravel, and a lot of work to be done to figure out the complex history and legacy of the Camsell. But there’s new energy and commitment from many quarters. On April 1, for example, an initial gathering of people representing the site’s stakeholders – patients, loved ones, staff, scholars, community organizations – took place. People like Cathy and Louisa traveled from as far away as Cambridge Bay, Nunavut to take part, and we all know it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of who is connected to this site and has stories to tell. The proceedings from the symposium will be made public in a little while and I’m honoured I get to be the one to prepare the report. From there, I foresee a lot of positive movement to make sure the history is fully documented, and that individuals and communities tied to this history have a voice in communicating and commemorating that history.


One of the people who attended the full day of the symposium was Gene Dub, who has just spoken publicly about his firm’s plans around the site to the Edmonton Journal. Gene addressed the crowd of about sixty at the symposium on April 1, talking about the challenges he and his investors have faced over the past decade. They have encountered costly asbestos removal work that constantly set back their budget and timeline, and have faced the ire of community members who are sick of the ‘eyesore’ in the Inglewood neighbourhood. But now with the asbestos remediation complete, they can apply for construction financing.

Developer Gene Dub said construction on a residential complex will start this summer at the Charles Camsell hospital site.

Interestingly enough, Gene noted in his impromptu speech at the symposium that there are silver linings to the delays. For one, it has allowed him to become more familiar with the complex history of the site, something that his participation in this symposium only underlined. And as he sat in his group working through questions about history, commemoration, access to information, and more, I wonder what he was thinking.

I do know the Edmonton Journal wrote:

Dub said a 0.4-hectare healing garden at the Camsell site will be designed with the help of aboriginal groups and families of former patients to commemorate the hospital’s history as a federal facility to treat aboriginal people with tuberculosis and other diseases.

As he noted, there are limits to what he can do on the site because of permits and so on, but it’s an idea many in the community and room agreed with. There were also a lot of nodding heads when Gene said that when the site is completely safe from asbestos, he would welcome Elders to perform a healing ceremony.

I hope those things come to pass as members of the Indigenous community that I’ve spoken with would really like them. I know there are two other areas people always ask me about that I can share some information around now as well:

  1. The mosaic in the hallway of the Camsell by Alexander Svoboda, is being preserved during construction by Gene Dub and Associates. The graffiti will be removed and it will be restored to its 1960s-era glory.
  2. The development group hired St. Albert-based historian Michael Payne to do research into possible burial sites where the former Camsell Hospital is located. Payne apparently said there is no evidence of this and that any bodies found would likely be from the pre-1900 period from along the St. Albert Trail. They assured the City of Edmonton, however, that all work would immediately stop if a bone of any kind were found. I understand that the Provincial Government is also examining other types of evidence such as aerial photos for any clue. And I will, as always, keep my eyes and ears open.

So here we are, a year after this blog began, with everyone talking about the Camsell Hospital it seems. Sharing stories and memories. Looking at its complicated history with unflinching eyes. Figuring out ways forward for healing and reconciliation.

As Miranda Jimmy, the person who has walked beside me on this journey wrote on a card recently, “Out of something so dark has grown something so beautiful….” For the Camsell, it’s still spring’s tender shoots breaking through the soil. We need to keep nurturing this growth, for all of our sakes.

Update: Fall/Winter 2015

The search for Joseph and my research into the Camsell Hospital has really picked up over the last few months.

Finding Joseph

Part of this is I found out I will be unexpectedly moving to Houston, Texas soon. This doesn’t mean I’ll be turning my back on the people and questions that have haunted me this year. In fact, the opposite is true. I accelerated my quest to find answers for Cathy and her mother, Louisa, and followed clues all over Edmonton. After chasing down some leads I found some of the information they wanted: when and where he died, and where he might be buried. One of my colleagues nicknamed me “CSI, Historian,” which I actually kind of like. Solving historical mysteries – especially when the stakes are so high and personal – is pretty much why I do what I do.

These small answers, of course, have raised many more question marks in our minds, and we are continuing the search for information about Joseph. But I hope by next year at least, Louisa will be able to visit her father’s gravesite, something she’s been waiting to do for over fifty years.

In the meantime, I’ve been madly making copies of records and publications at the City of Edmonton Archives and the Provincial Archives of Alberta and I will be carting them with me to Texas. So far this has meant a box full of photocopies and a hard-drive full of digital files – about 4000, to be exact. Nothing compared to the millions the TRC has had to wrestle with, but nothing to sneeze at for one lone researcher.

Camsell Patient Database?

One of the things I’ve realized as I’ve done this research, is that while the medical records may be sealed or lost or destroyed, I may be able to piece together a database of former patients in other ways. What I’ve been hearing from patients and their families – as well as from residential school Survivors – is that making this information available and accessible could be part of the reconciliation process. They can get information that used to be hidden. They can see their names and those of their loved ones in black and white. It proves they were there and gives weight to their claims.

In all my work I want to do more good than harm. So I ask these patients and their family members – what would be the best way to make this information accessible?

And I’d like to put the question out there to all of you. If I can get some funding and do this database of names and make it available, what should it be like?

Update: Summer 2015

DMC, Cathy Aitok and Louisa Paril
Me with Louisa Baril and Cathy Aitaok in Edmonton in early July 2015, getting to meet for the first time in person.

The Ghosts of Camsell blog project may have ended, but I have been pushing forward with my research and relationship building. This has included trying to help find answers for Louisa and Cathy about what happened to the former’s dad (latter’s grandfather), Joseph Elulik. He left Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on a plane in May 1960 to be treated at the Camsell – possibly for prosthetics to be fitted for his feet – and never returned. His daughter, Louisa, was 17 years old, recently married with a newborn when he left. She remembers he told her he, like others from the community, might not come back from the Camsell, and how she cried when he took off. Now she is 72 years old and wants to know what happened and where he is buried.

Joseph Illulik
Joseph Elulik

As anyone who has worked to dig up these kinds of answers knows, it is not straightforward. The two women told me they don’t know his Inuit ID number (sometimes called Eskimo Dog Tags) and that due to creative phonetic spellings, as well as Anglicization of Inuit names, his surname might have been spelled Illulik or Elolik. They think he was Catholic, which might explain why he wasn’t buried at the St. Albert Aboriginal Cemetery I wrote about in this series. But searches through Beechmount and St. Albert Catholic Cemeteries haven’t turned up anything yet either.

Here’s some more identifying info they passed on to me:

“He was sent out from Perry River/Island – Cambridge Bay area. He would have been possibly late 30’s when he was sent out, or early 40’s. My mom always said he had frozen both his feet, very badly, so he had no toes on either feet.  He had a different walk than everyone, cause he didn’t have toes, but he was still able to hunt and travel by dog team.”

If this rings any bells, please get in touch and I will pass along the information to Cathy and Louisa. We hope a former patient, nurse or staff member at the Camsell will remember him. In the meantime, I will keep digging into what records I can find, talk to more people, and unpack this complex history.

Here is a link to a recent update I had published on the Edmonton City as Museum Project website.

Also, CTV Alberta Primetime just did a two-part feature on this story featuring Louisa talking about her dad, and myself and others like Miranda Jimmy discussing the history and legacy of the Camsell Hospital. Click on the following to watch Part One. Part Two.

Thank you also to CBC and APTN for their recent interest in this story and trying to help Louisa find what happened to her father.

Camsell July 2015
The Camsell Hospital on July 7, 2015 in the middle of being redeveloped.

Tell Your Story!

During the course of this project, I’ve had a lot of people tell me snippets of stories about their connections to the Camsell. To help gather up and preserve these stories, I’ve partnered up with David Rauch of In Your Own Words to host a recording session.

Tuesday, May 19th from 5-8pm at the Stanley Milner Library  in Edmonton (Alberta), we’ll be recording any and all memories connected to the Camsell Hospital throughout its long history. Do you remember when it was a Jesuit College or US military base? Were you born there or treated there? Did you work there, or did a relative? Did you perhaps go ghost-hunting there or skateboarding after it was closed (yes, you can stay anonymous!)? What stories do you have that you’d like to share?

At the beginning of the session, you’ll sign in, give your name and any additional contact information if you’d like (this will be used strictly internally and won’t be passed on to other parties), and you’ll sign a form affirming that you allow your story to be stored and made public. Individual sessions and two-person interviews will be encouraged.

These stories will then be preserved through In Your Own Words on the Cloud (basically the Internet’s hard drive) and we’ll look into preserving them through a local archive as well. The stories may then be used in future heritage works around the Camsell Hospital.

Please note, I am also looking into creating safe spaces for indigenous storytelling circles on the Camsell this summer with the assistance of different colleagues and elders. If you would be more comfortable sharing your story in this way, please contact me and I will invite you when the dates are set.

You can reach me with any questions or comments on this at

Thank You

Thanks to the following people and organizations who assisted me with the research for this online project:

  • Kathryn Ivany and Tim O’Grady at City of Edmonton Archives
  • Vino Vipulanantharajah, archivist at Musée Heritage Museum in St. Albert
  • Betty Gaskarth, Legislative Officer| Corporate Strategic Services for the City of St. Albert
  • Pat Pettitt from Research Services Committee of the Edmonton Branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society
  • Terry O’Riordan, Braden Cannon, and Tom Anderson at the Provincial Archives of Alberta

And thanks to everyone who has commented on posts, on Facebook, on Twitter, and through email. Our conversations have helped move this project – and my thinking – forward. I hope we can continue to discuss these important questions and solve these troubling mysteries.

Elusive Ghosts and Blank Spaces

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.

Charles Camsell Hospital dietician, M. Fazackerley on August 28, 1948 (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-1366c)

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.

Hon. Paul Martin, minister of national health and welfare, visits aborginal patients at the Dr. Charles Camsell Hospital. (L-R) Paul Martin, Dr. Percy E. Moore and nine-year-old George McDonald on October 27, 1947 (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-513b)
Hon. Paul Martin, minister of national health and welfare, visits aborginal patients at the Dr. Charles Camsell Hospital. (L-R) Paul Martin, Dr. Percy E. Moore and nine-year-old George McDonald on October 27, 1947 (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-513b)

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:

“We know that several children who attended the St. Albert residential school and who were NOT at the Charles Camsell, are buried in this cemetery. I suspect and believe that these are the unrecorded graves of these lost children.”

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?

Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Edna Hansen of Fort Simpson, in Edmonton visiting relatives Elizabeth, Mavis and Ernest Villeneuve in the Camsell on May 29, 1947 (City of Edmonton Archives,  EA-600-123b)
Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Edna Hansen of Fort Simpson, in Edmonton visiting relatives Elizabeth, Mavis and Ernest Villeneuve in the Camsell on May 29, 1947 (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-123b)

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.

Milestones and Moving Forward

When I began researching the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital and then the cairn in the Aboriginal Cemetery in St. Albert, I had no idea where it would lead. This is generally the case for those of us who are researchers and writers and historians. We are taken with a topic, often for reasons we don’t fully understand, and then we follow our gut instincts. Often, like the famous mosaic in the Camsell Hospital, we don’t know what we’ve created until all the pieces are in place and we’re standing back looking at it.

Mosaic in the Charles Camsell Hospital

I had no idea, for example, when I looked in that archive box last month that this online project would be read around the world, or that I would be connecting with more people in the Arctic, trying to help them track down loved ones.

I only knew that I was haunted by this story and wanted to find ways to be an ally on the journey toward reconciliation. I wanted to try doing history ‘out in the open’ in a transparent and engaging way. To listen and ask questions and collaborate with others more.

I certainly didn’t realize before that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the cairn dedication.

In 1995, Elva Taylor, who had been so instrumental in the Camsell Mosaic history project in 1985 and then the cairn in 1990, spearheaded the 50th anniversary of the Camsell as well. In contrast with the cairn dedication, this ceremony really highlighted indigenous connections. It started Monday, July 17 at 8 a.m. with a pipe ceremony. For two days, people gathered on the hospital grounds. There was a traditional feast, prayers and a flag raising and the whole shebang ended at 7 p.m. on July 18 with a round dance. Inuk author Minnie Aodla Freeman offered a talk, “Leaving Home”, on both days. There were displays of artwork, crafts and old photographs.


It’s been twenty-five years since the cairn was erected. Next year will be fifty years since they changed the Camsell from a segregated Indian Hospital to a general Provincial Hospital. These are big milestones in the world of commemorations, and in mainstream Canadian society, we really like big milestones as you can see from Elva’s 1995 undertaking.

They are certainly good opportunities to remember – but also to create memory, to build our collective memories around key events. We’re doing a lot of it right now around the First and Second World Wars, and will be gearing up for Canada’s 150th birthday soon. Often we look to what we see as defining moments that we can celebrate.

I don’t see, however, why the birth of John A. Macdonald should be celebrated with unadulterated fanfare,  or why we should trumpet a whitewashed Confederation. James Daschuk, other scholars, and elders, have certainly exposed some of the Macdonald’s government’s more horrific policies (by most standards, present and past) for “pacifying the plains” and the way Confederation is traditionally taught leaves out a lot of the history.

I do see value in commemorating the resilience and agency of indigenous people at the Camsell, and the friendships that were forged. I think it’s worthwhile for people today to think about the policies and actions that meant individuals were sent so far from home for treatment and forgotten by the powers that be. The fact that so many people have contacted me in the hopes of tracking down loved ones shows this story is far from over. The fact that so few people I know (myself included for most of my life) have ever heard of Indian Hospitals shows the important gaps in our knowledge. Maybe commemorations will help spread the word.

Harry Anaglik strums guitar as Roger Avrana listens on January 3, 1950 (Courtesy of Edmonton City Archives, EA-600-3574a)

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Miranda Jimmy what she thought of the idea of commemorating these anniversaries. “That’s really sensitive to even think about,” she told me. “Especially if there wasn’t northern indigenous participation the first time. But maybe we could take care of the things that weren’t taken care of then. Also, being June and being National Aboriginal Day and Month – while I can’t speak on behalf of all indigenous individuals – that time has become a point of pride to recognize our place in history.”

For Jimmy, there could be opportunities to hold healing ceremonies both at the cemetery and at the site of the Camsell. It could also be a way to show non-indigenous Edmontonians that it’s not just “a run-down building” that used to be a hospital; there are major stories there connected to First Nations. “Those two stories have to intersect at some point,” she says.

Journalist Erin Ellis, who now lives in Vancouver, thinks that if a commemoration event happens this year, “it will probably be a different conversation.”

“A lot more younger Aboriginal people today are interested in speaking out about injustices of the past than they might have been 25 years ago,” she notes. “Across Canada the Aboriginal population is young now, maybe it would be important for them. At least an example of the rest of Canada trying to recognize something that went wrong.”

What do you think? What should happen, if anything, this June when the cairn turns 25?

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.

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.


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.”


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?

The Old Indian Cemetery

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.”

According to records at the St. Albert Heritage Museum, the City checked with both the Dene and Inuit Cultural Institutes on the wording “Aboriginal Cemetery”.

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.