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.

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.

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.