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.