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Cree leaders, scientists to excavate 'communal grave' near former Alberta residential school

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Leaders of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation are planning to unearth a potential mass grave near a former residential school, while accusing the RCMP and medical examiner of negligence and racism.

The announcement came after scientists at the International Commission on Missing Persons in The Hague, Netherlands, concluded that a skull found near a former school site is that of a child under the age of five.

"This is a humanitarian recovery. Not a prosecutorial or a criminal investigation," Leah Redcrow told reporters at a Wednesday morning press conference in Enoch, Alta.

She is a leader with the Blue Quills Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Inquiry and the Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS).

Redcrow and elected leaders from Saddle Lake were joined Wednesday by an archaeologist from Thunder Bay, a geophysicist from Calgary and an anthropologist from the Netherlands.

All agree there is evidence of "numerous child-sized skeletal remains contained in a communal pit" near the former Blue Quills/Sacred Heart Indian Residential School.

That school was open from 1898-1931 on the western side of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, about 170 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

Redcrow said leaders are organizing community consultations and are planning a "humanitarian forensic recovery," with the help of experts, at the site this summer.

"We really want to ensure that our family members get the respectful burial that they deserve. We are thinking in the best interest of the children," Redcrow said.

It's not known how many students of the former residential school may be in the grave, but the intent is to identify the remains and return them to family members.

Redcrow said evidence suggests the children were not buried in caskets, but rather wrapped in bedsheets from the school, leaving the remains vulnerable to animals.

A skeleton was first accidentally excavated in 2004 about 100 metres from the former residential school by Jason Whiskeyjack, who was digging a new grave in the adjacent community cemetery.

"What we discovered was a mass grave…over the years we've been hitting [others] off and on," he said.

"We didn't think anything of it because it wasn't brought to our attention that the residential school was there."

Redcrow said other community members have also found remains at the site but have reburied the bones after praying over them.

"Essentially what's happening is the closer that modern burials get to where the residential school foundation is, the more often they are finding unidentified child skeletal remains…which includes this mass grave," she explained.

The site has now been closed to the public and secured 24-hours-a-day, she said.

Redcrow and other investigators first went public about "physical and documented evidence of a genocide" about a year ago.

She said records suggest some of the children died from bovine tuberculosis after drinking milk from untested animals, which a pair of experts agreed is possible in interviews with CTV News Edmonton.

The community consultations start Feb. 13 in Saddle Lake and a full list will be posted on the AOS website.

'Negligence and institutional racism'

So far the RCMP and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta have "refused to investigate," Redcrow stated, accusing both of "continued negligence and institutional racism."

She said the Acimowin Opaspiw Society has been attempting to meet with officials from the medical examiner's office for more than a year.

"He absolutely refused to meet with us. He told us he doesn't excavate mass graves of children who died of disease," Redcrow said.

"He believes they died of a natural death so he said that doesn't fall under his responsibility under the fatalities act."

Leaders from Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Blue Quills Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Inquiry and Acimowin Opaspiw Society are joined by scientists and Bishop Gary Franken from the Diocese of St. Paul at a press conference regarding unmarked graves on January 24, 2024 in Enoch, Alta. (Dave Mitchell/CTV News Edmonton)

Redcrow alleges the RCMP has also refused requests to aid in the investigation.

"The RCMP told us, 'We don't collect old bones from cemeteries,'" she said.

"So that's the kind of negligence and institutional racism that RCMP continue to show against these children, 100 years later."

Alberta RCMP said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton that local officers "have been working closely with these groups" and will make sure that any crimes are fully investigated.

"Community involvement and engagement is our top priority, and the RCMP could not support any further disturbance of the grounds without community approval," wrote spokesperson Fraser Logan.

"It is not solely the decision of the Alberta RCMP to proceed with further study of the grounds – many governmental, academic, First Nations, and cultural groups need to be consulted before exhumations occur."

On Thursday, the justice ministry issued a generic statement in response to allegations against the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta.

It said it has no power to excavate cemeteries or mass graves on its own, instead encouraging First Nation's leaders to work with the National Advisory Committee on Residential School Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.

'Retribution prevents meaningful reconciliation'

Before updating the status of the investigation, Redcrow called for an end to the burning of churches in Alberta.

Bishop Gary Franken from the Diocese of St. Paul joined the press conference. He did not speak but Redcrow said the Catholic Church has been helping in the probe and that assistance is needed to get to the truth.

"I want to advise and request that people stop destroying parishes," Redcrow said.

"Parishes hold the histories and records of our family members and this reckless destruction is unacceptable and illegal…Retribution prevents meaningful reconciliation and the healing our people require."

According to the Mounties, 13 suspicious church fires have occurred across Alberta since 2018, prompting condemnation from religious, political and First Nation leaders.

In December, a church was destroyed by fire in Janvier, Alta. RCMP are investigating and a councillor from Chipewyan Prairie First Nation said, "That's not respecting our community."

About a week earlier, two churches were burned in Barrhead County. Premier Danielle Smith referred to the arsons as "hate" while calling for arrests.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free line at 1-800-721-0066.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here

With files from CTV News Edmonton's David Ewasuk, Alex Antoneshyn and The Canadian Press

 

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