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The Blue Quills Alleged “Communal Grave”: A Case of Premature Inference?

Sacred Heart Indian Residential School (also known as Blue Quills) at Saddle Lake, 1926. The school operated near Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta between 1898 and 1931. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

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On January 26, 2024, the Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS) held a press conference at Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, announcing that they planned to undertake a forensic excavation of what they believed was a communal grave containing possibly hundreds of First Nations children, a grave located near the spot where the former Sacred Heart Indian Residential School once stood. Saddle Lake’s suspicions of a communal grave’s existence had been aroused in 2004 when a cemetery excavator accidentally unearthed skeletal remains while digging new burial plots in the existent community cemetery.

Present at both the conference and Saddle Lake”s initial 2022 announcement of a “mass grave,”  the excavator, Jason Whiskeyjack, related how people didn’t believe him at first when he reported finding skeletal remains, wrapped in white funeral shrouds, that were small in size, like those of a child. Whenever he accidentally came across something such as this, he would lay down some tobacco and re-bury it. 

“What we discovered was a mass grave,” Whiskeyjack told reporters at the conference.

Lead investigator and residential school survivor Eric Large, left, and Saddle Lake council member Jason Whiskeyjack are shown at the 2022 news conference regarding the discovery of information about unmarked burials near the Blue Quills residential school. (Peter Evans/CBC)

It appears that Whiskeyjack’s community started taking him seriously after the May 27, 2021 announcement of ‘215 children’s remains being found’ on what were once the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The idea of missing and murdered children in secret graves gave Saddle Lake members a horrifying explanation for the repeated discovery of skeletal remains. No one in the community was aware that the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School (1898-1931) had once stood just 100 meters south of what was now suspected of being a communal grave.

Recent developments regarding this putative grave led to a large and catered press conference, which included reports coming from several technical experts on Zoom. Evidently, unspecified animals had been digging up these bones and leaving them exposed on the surface.  

The January 26 2024 news conference during which the discovery was announced of a communal grave near the site of the former Sacred Heart Indian Residential School. (APTN)

Leah Redcrow, CEO of the AOS, stressed the critical need for preservation and dignity and said she was hoping the media response would spur the federal government into funding disinterment, identification, and repatriation.

In addition to the above, Saddle Lake wanted to hold a round dance which, if it was held once, would necessitate four more round dances per year (presumably for the duration of the recovery and re-interment process). Once forgotten or ignored, these children would now be remembered and honoured.

According to Redcrow, a communal or mass grave is “a site or defined area containing a multitude, so more than one, buried, submerged or surface-scattered human remains including skeletonized, fragmented and mingled remains where the circumstances surrounding the deaths and disposal methods warrant an investigation as to their lawfulness.” 

Let us look closely at this announcement and its implications.

A “lawful” explanation for mass burial without caskets would be this: in the event of deadly, infectious disease outbreaks, the urgency to contain further spread would necessitate mass burial. However implausible it might be that funeral shrouds could survive a century underground, what Whiskeyjack uncovered would have been a typical practice under the circumstances of a lethal epidemic.

Moreover, Redcrow stated that remains were only eight centimetres below the surface, where they could easily be found by animals. Why those animals would leave behind the bones they just dug up remains unclear. However, between animals and natural erosion, enough skeletal remains were retrieved from the surface to alarm Redcrow.

Photos of cranial and other fragments were sent to the Head of Forensic Anthropology for the International Commission for Missing Persons, Soren Blau. Judging from the photos, Blau stated by Zoom, further investigation was warranted. By whom, Blau did not say. She could not, of course, do anything but estimate the age of the remains which were apparently damaged by animals. “A child under five,” she guessed.

Redcrow and others believe these are the bodies of children from Sacred Heart IRS because this ostensible communal grave is located just 100 meters from where it is thought the school once stood. In 2022, Saddle Lake believed there could be as many as 212 children buried there, but, after examining burial records from the St Paul diocese, Redcrow and the AOS think that as many as 335 bodies could be found. This is the number of children under 18 years of age who died in the parish between 1898-1931 while the Sacred Heart school was open.

Admittedly, said Redcrow, both the exact number and possible identity of these bodies would be difficult to determine. Apparently, while the diocese was forthcoming in providing the codices of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, there was a lapse in journal keeping from 1915 to 1930 when the priests devoted their energies towards publishing a Cree syllabic newspaper. (One might reasonably consider this a rather remarkable gesture of cultural preservation at a time more commonly regarded today as one of cultural genocide.)

Hoping to find archival documents for that period, Redcrow sought to obtain the Sisters’ Chronicles from the Sisters of Charity who worked at Sacred Heart. At the conference, she lamented the Sisters of Charity’s refusal to let AOS review the Chronicles. However, the Sisters of Charity provided their Chronicles to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation which has yet to make the Chronicles public despite their promises to do so. It seems unlikely that the Sisters of Charity would not have duly informed Redcrow and the AOS of NCTR’s custody of the Chronicles.

Geophysicist Alastair McClymont of BGC Engineering was one of three experts briefly appearing at the conference by Zoom. He oversaw two GPR surveys of the alleged Blue Quills communal grave and adjacent area. Close to the current cemetery, McClymont found what he determined to most likely be a former cemetery where the graves had long since become unmarked and hence forgotten. GPR detected what appeared to be casket burials with individual grave shafts. Near that site, in what was believed to be the communal grave, McClymont said a high-resolution GPR scan was undertaken over a 20m by 20m area. While GPR did not detect anomalies consistent with grave shafts associated with individual burials, he pointed out that “rectangular features interpreted on horizontal slices taken at very shallow depths on this very recent GPR survey could possibly indicate the presence of former grave shafts,(emphasis added).

A cautious inference from McClymont’s testimony and from Whiskeyjack’s anecdotal description of shrouded bodies would be that the communal grave isn’t an unlawful mass grave, but rather a case of contingency interment during a disease outbreak when the ground may have been frozen and/or labour neither able nor available to dig graves at the customary depth. But the significance of McClymont’s remarks did not appear to register with anyone at the conference.

Redcrow complained that the Alberta Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) refused to either receive the bones found on the surface or to further excavate for remains. Redcrow says the OCME told her that it does not exhume bodies killed by disease. Furthermore, since the graves are on reserve land which is under federal jurisdiction, the OCME can’t conduct forensic exhumations of its own accord. Redcrow said she tried to get the RCMP to investigate but was told that they don’t investigate abandoned cemeteries. Redcrow accused both the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the RCMP of “institutional racism” for their inaction.

Eric Shirt, a member of Saddle Lake, related that he attended residential school and that “as kids we would murmurs (sic) suddenly a kid was gone.” Perhaps he and his classmates did murmur such things, but he could not possibly have attended Sacred Heart IRS, which had ceased to exist before he was born. Who can say how much his recollections are animated by current “mass graves” controversy?

“This is a humanitarian recovery. Not a prosecutorial or a criminal investigation,” stated Redcrow at the news conference. Mindful of the many church arsons that occurred in the wake of the Kamloops announcement, she preemptively asked “that people stop burning parishes” as they contain parish records essential for identifying who was buried where and why. “Adherence would be much appreciated,” she added laconically. As Redcrow explained, “Retribution prevents meaningful reconciliation and the healing our people require “

A burning Roman Catholic Church in Morinville, Alberta, in June of 2021

It is too early to draw any definite conclusions from the Saddle Lake announcements.  There is no evidence linking any of the skeletal remains that have been discovered to the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School.  Alleged discoveries have been made on or near a communal cemetery known to contain hundreds of burials unconnected to the school.  Any earlier discoveries have been reburied and are not now available for examination.  AOS will have to offer more persuasive evidence than this if it wishes to indict the Sacred Heart Residential School for an unlawful mistreatment and dishonouring of its students.

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