Blue Quills press conference of Wednesday, 24 January 2024

Transcript of Blue Quills press conference of Wednesday, 24 January 2024, at the River Cree Resort and Casino at Enoch, Alberta

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NOTE: Reporters’ questions were difficult to hear, though the panel's answers were clear.


Leah Redcrow:  (00:00)
Good morning. My name is Leah Red Crow. I'm the investigation director of the Blue Quills Missing Children and Unmarked Burials inquiry. And I'm also the CEO of the Acimowin Opaspiw Society. Uh, joining me today is members on our Board of Directors, uh, which are comprised of the survivors of Blue Quills and also the elected Council of Saddle Lake Cree Nation.  So the Board of Directors oversee the governance of our organization, and they also support us in our investigation efforts.

Additionally, uh, we have my friend Bishop Gary Franken from the Diocese of Saint Paul. Um, the AOS has been completing our investigation in tandem with the diocese via the Bishop's office, and this partnership that we have with them, um, really, uh, allowed us to get to know them, and they became one of our key stakeholders in the investigation, along with other orders of the Catholic Church and, uh, that were relevant to when the Sacred Heart, Blue Quills Indian Residential School was operational. So this joint effort that we have with the, with the diocese has brought significant healing to our survivors and the affected families, including, uh, significant accuracy to make, uh, determinations in the investigation.

I want to advise everybody that these investigations, uh, for former Indian residential school sites and locating missing and deceased, uh, former students are impossible to do without the appropriate documentation and collaboration with the religious orders as, because these documents that they have are, they're restricted, and they are in the custodial care of these different dioceses and parishes. Therefore, before we begin and we, and we make our disclosure, I just want to advise and request that people stop destroying parishes. Parishes hold the histories and records of our family members. And it's and this, this reckless destruction is unacceptable and illegal. I, it's the information that these parishes hold have invaluable information about our families, our history, and further information about the reality of the Indian residential school system and different sites across Canada. Retribution prevents meaningful reconciliation and the healing our people require from the dark legacy of Indian residential School. Therefore, your adherence is much appreciated. Also present are stakeholders from Crown-indigenous Relations on Zoom and our lead archeologist, Doctor Scott Hamilton, our geophysicist, Doctor Alastair McClymont, on Zoom, and joining us from The Hague, Netherlands.

Doctor Soren Blau, forensic archeology and anthropology head with the International Commission on Missing Persons. So what happened was in October, we've been doing ground penetrating radar surveys, um, at the Sacred Heart, the former Sacred Heart Indian residential school site in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, which is Saddle Lake West. But at the time when this school was operating, it was called the Chief Blue Quills Reserve. And so that's how the school kind of got nicknamed Blue Quills. But the actual proper name is Sacred Heart Indian Residential School. Um, so we've been doing the ground penetrating, we did the ground penetrating radar there for six months straight, and in October 2023, while our ground penetrating radar operators were measuring out grids on top of a known communal grave, uh, they discovered child skeletal remains. And so, just to be clear, a communal grave is a site or defined area containing a multitude, so more than one, uh, buried, submerged or surface-scattered human remains, including skeletonized, commingled and fragmented remains where the circumstances surrounding the death and body disposal method, method warrant to an investigation as to their lawfulness while their remains have been found, have been, have not been identified to a specific person yet.

The ICMP concluded that the remains were that of a juvenile, uh, to be less than five years of age. Initially this communal grave, uh, was accidentally excavated in the year 2004, and it's located approximately 100m north of the residential, the former residential school foundation at Sacred Heart in Saddle Lake Cree Nation West.  According to the excavator, when the communal grave was accidentally excavated due to it being unmarked, um, he, he saw numerous child-sized skeletal remains, uh, contained in a communal pit. The remains were not protected in caskets and instead were wrapped in white shrouds. This communal grave has been under investigation via GPR and historical research since we began two years ago. Due to the shallow depth of the communal grave, we understood that at some point it would require excavation followed by recovery of the bodies inside. We're unable to determine specific numbers or causes of death until the excavation and recovery concludes. However, a common trait shared in mass burials around the world is the lack of, uh, death certificates for the people contained inside of them.

So, for example, in our research, even we have, uh, children who are missing. So in our investigation, we consider a child missing if they don't have any death certificates or burial records, but we know them to be deceased. And, uh, with that, there are children that we know are deceased that are still listed as alive. Uh, but we can confirm that they died in the early 1920s. And so these children are actively considered missing. So this residential school was opened, the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School was open from 1898 to 1931, while it operated in Saddle Lake West, and therefore, we believe, um, the children who went missing during their enrolment in Sacred Heart were buried in one of the, so the actively missing children were buried in one of the two known communal burial pits identified by our community. So both of them were discovered, one of them by accidental excavation, and one of them was discovered by a family who lived at the site, and they discovered it near the school foundation.

So the child skeletal remains were located on top of the communal burial, and the official authorities, being the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta, and the RCMP, refused to provide any forensic investigation support concerning the retrieval of the child skeletal remains. Therefore, the AOS is denouncing both authorities for their continued negligence and institutional racism towards our people, even in the most tragic of circumstances. To be clear, communal burials or mass graves violate international humanitarian law as they deny the victims individuation in death. So under international humanitarian, human rights law, the victims, the victims that are in, uh, the people who allege that there's been an enforced disappearance that has occurred should be able to report this to competent authorities whilst being afforded appropriate protection. Even without formal, formal complaints, so long as there's reasonable grounds to believe that an enforced disappearance has occurred, the authorities are required to investigate. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta and the RCMP, as these local authorities refuse to, refuse to act.

And when this happens, the international community must step in. So consequently, when, uh, when the state officials, so the office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the RCMP, uh refuse to do this, that's when we had to, uh, connect with the International Commission on Missing Persons. So with, uh, what we're hoping to do or planning to do is we're planning to do a humanitarian, uh, forensic recovery effort on these communal burials. Um, we're hoping for this summer of 2024.

And we also want to remind the office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta of their refusal to provide any type of support.  Therefore when we get this investigation going we’re hoping that they don’t try and interfere or stop the recovery effort that they refused to provide us any support with.

Collectively we as an organization and all Canadians have an international legal obligation to ensure communal burials, or mass graves as they’re also known, are investigated and that the victims’ remains are identified with DNA and returned to living descendants where possible.  The International Commission on Missing Persons specializes and conduct these mass burial forensic investigations globally and have the appropriate framework protocols to complete this recovery in accordance with international humanitarian law and has the world’s most technologically advanced DNA identification system and laboratory in The Hague, Netherlands.  So therefore I want to reiterate this is a humanitarian recovery, not a prosecutorial or a criminal investigation.  That being said, to provide additional information on this discovery I’m going to pass it over to my scientific oversight team present, beginning with our lead archaeologist who has completed significant research on this site and the communal burial, Dr Scott Hamilton, who is an archaeologist.  And then following uh Dr Hamilton will be Dr Alastair McClymont, who is a geophysicist with BGC.  And then after Alastair is complete we’ll hear from Dr Soren Blau, forensic anthropologist head for the International Commission on Missing Persons, and she did the visual assessment of the juvenile skeletal remains.

Scott Hamilton:  My name is Scott Hamilton. I’m an archaeologist on faculty at the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.  Um, I’ve been involved in this investigation for a little over a year, and my role has been to kind of act as a technical resource person. And I’ve been helping with the collection of historic information, historic images, historic photographs, old air photographs, and integrating them to aid the contextualization of oral history and written history about the site, and also to integrate this information with the modern configuration of the landscape.

Now this site dated for not quite 40 years. Um it is located in a comparatively remote part of the reserve community of that time, and it consisted of a parish church, a residence for the priest, the residential school, residence for the nuns, also a farmyard as well as several other outbuildings.  The locations of many of these buildings were not precisely known when the investigations have begun, and this makes it very difficult to frame and contextualize a search operation. Much of the work that has been done over the last few months has focused upon getting as high-quality contemporary imagery of the site as we can, as you can see with the illustrations on the right, and comparing those to historic images, either photographs taken from the ground, or early air photographs that are currently residing in the National Air Photo Library. And you can see an example from 1946 on the lefthand side of this frame.  The process involves taking historic imaging and geo-referencing it to the contemporary mapping, and then doing a overview analysis of what landscape features to what cultural features are visible in the old photograph and interpreting them relative to the contemporary situation. And this has helped us identify some candidate areas that are possibly or perhaps even probably the scene of burials.

Now the problem we have in many of these sites in Canada is that quite frequently the residential schools are associated with a parish church and quite frequently there will be churchyard cemeteries that contain the burials of parishioners and it becomes very difficult to separate those parishioners’ burials from the burials of children who were attending the residential school.  In this case we think that the residential school children were segregated away from that main, that main larger community, and we suspect that this burial place is associated with the red arrow that is labelled 4a in the 1946 image.  When we look closer we can see that this locality also coincides with the area reported in 2004 after accidental interception of multiple burials that are quite shallowly buried uh wrapped in shrouds um associated with um star number 1 on the image to the right.  The recent 1923 uh I’m sorry, 2023 surface recovery is from the yellow triangle represented by location 2.  And you can see that they’re in quite close proximity.  We can see modern burials that are not too terribly far away, and this raises a complex problem of trying to figure out how to explore the open ground in order to identify where unmarked graves might be without intersecting and interfering with the known graves.  This is part of a very complicated um investigation that is ongoing.

This is a oblique angle photograph after some of the forest vegetation on the main school grounds were cleared this fall to provide some kind of spatial contextualization for the distribution of historic structures and where we believe the historic residential school cemeteries might be located.

And with that, I will turn the floor over to my colleague Alistair, who can talk about the geophysics in more detail.

Alastair McClymont: Thank you, Scott.  So, my name is Alastair McClymont. I am a geophysicist with BGC Engineering and I’ve been supporting the Acimowin Opaspiw Society with this investigation since September 2022. My role is to provide GPR training and geophysics training and technical review of the results from the GPR survey.

So the Acimowin Opaspiw Society began a GPR survey at the site in September of 2022, and those surveys are ongoing.  A total area of 1.8 hectares has been surveyed with GPR including areas of the contemporary Sacred Heart cemetery and areas that were in use by the former Sacred Heart Residential School.

A number of GPR anomalies have been interpreted, and in areas of the contemporary cemetery some of these are interpreted to be from objects of a size and depth consistent with individual casket burials that may once have been marked, but their grave markings have subsequently disappeared.

Now in October 2023, after the discovery of these surface bones in the area that Scott described, we conducted a high resolution GPR survey of that area that was approximately 20 metres by 20 metres square area, and it was conducted over the area encompassing where bones were found on the ground surface, and includes where the reported accidental exhumation of children’s bones occurred in 2004. Results from this more recent GPR survey do not show any anomalies consistent with individual casket burials. However, rectangular features interpreted on horizontal slices taken at very shallow depths from this more recent GPR survey could possibly indicate the remnants of former grave shafts.  Thank you.  I’ll hand it back to the next person.

Soren Blau:  Good morning, everybody. My name is Soren Blau. I’m a forensic anthropologist and head of forensic archaeology and anthropology, International Commission on Missing Persons. In October 2023 the AOS contacted the International Commission on Missing Persons for an opinion on photographs of suspected human skeletal remains. Following a review of numerous photographs, I was able to confirm that the photographs depict human cranial, post cranial and dental remains. While the images depict isolated skeletal and dental elements, it was not possible to establish whether these were from one or more than one individual. However there was no apparent evidence of co-mingling. Based on the size of the skeletal elements and the developmental phase of the dentition, the remains are those of a juvenile or juveniles estimated to be less than five years of age. The skeletal elements and dental remains appeared dry, weathered. Many had evidence of post mortem damage. It was not possible to comment on the time since death, but given these initial observations, the International Commission on Missing Persons recommends that further investigations are undertaken.  Thank you.

Leah Redcrow:  Um, so with that we also wanted to use this opportunity to let um in a mass uh mass dissemination all the people who had uh living, uh who had relatives in the Sacred Heart Indian Residential School to please notify the oldest members of your family we're going to be coming and hosting engagement meetings across Alberta uh to engage with you on this recovery effort, this humanitarian recovery effort.  Um and we're hoping to excavate this mass grave and identify the children that are inside of it, uh get them appropriate death documentation, declare them legally dead, uh because as I stated earlier there's children who are missing that are still listed as alive that we know are deceased.

Um, so these engagement meetings uh we really would like to target the uh descendants of survivors who were in Sacred Heart between 1898 and 1931.  Although many of those survivors have now, have now passed away, their children or grandchildren are likely alive, and we would like for them to attend these uh engagement meetings that we're going to be uh hosting.

So uh, and we also just wanted to let uh the public know that the site is now secured uh 24 hours a day and monitored by security, and we are banning outside visitors uh from trespassing onto the site. Uh we only request that registered members of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation that have a requirement to be at the location uh to, to uh go there uh going forward.

Uh so for the engagement meetings we will be in the following communities on the following dates.

We're going to host an engagement meeting on February 13th in Saddle Lake Cree Nation at the old Onchaminahos school gym.

February 15th we, we will be in St Paul, Alberta, at the uh Recreation Center.

February 20th we will be at the Goodfish Lake Reserve at their Cultural Center.

Uh February 27th, Beaver Lake Cree Nation at their community Band hall.

February 28th we will be in Lac La Biche at their uh at their Community Event Center.

Uh February 29th we will be in Hart Lake at their Community Hall.

March 4th we will be in Fort McMurray to uh engage with the living descendants that may be living in that locality.

March 14th we will be in, here in Edmonton, or in Enoch at the River Cree, to host another engagement meeting for all the uh intergenerational survivors who live in Edmonton and uh who may be from one of those Bands.

And March 19th we will be in Calgary uh to engage with um any of the living descendants that, living intergenerational descendants that live there.

And we will be have, I will have the agendas and meeting dates posted on our website.  And our website address is, and if anyone has any additional questions uh for these, prior to these engagement meetings they can send an email to our general email at info, so and we will do our best to uh try answer any of your questions.  Um and we're hoping to try and have these engagement meetings and get feedback and uh hopefully if possible answer any concerns uh people might have.

But we just want to reiterate that this is a, this is a crisis. Um if essentially the um, the skeletal remains of these children because they're not protected in caskets are being um disinterred by animals, and so we cannot allow this to happen to these children.

Um this is, uh these types of Investigations are very complex and they're very uh they're, they can be very expensive, so therefore we need to let, we need to be very transparent about the process, um and in hopes that the Canadian government will um support us in doing this for the best interest of these children which also we happen to be the genealogical descendants. So all of us up here, um we, we have family members who died in this residential school, uh we’re so, and we are also the families of the missing children, um and so we really want this to happen because as we don't feel any child deserves to be in a communal pit and have their uh bodies disinterred by animals.

So uh with that, we'll take any questions from the press.

[Question inaudible]

So in 2000, 2004 Jason uh accident, he accidentally excavated this communal burial uh because it's, it's an unmarked burial, uh communal burial site or mass grave, and um, maybe Jason you can, do you want to comment on that, or.

Jason Whiskeyjack: Good morning, everybody.  Yeah, um in 2004 we had a funeral in the winter, and basically uh, usually a lot of times we prepare and have a fire and kind of unthaw the ground, but that day we didn't.  And uh we accidentally hit a mass grave that day.  And it was uh probably less than a metre or even 2 feet down below ground.  And uh what we discovered was a mass grave.  So that was around that time, and over the years we've been hitting off and on.

Reporter:  [question partly inaudible: At that time, these stories we all know time, so did you have a sense of what that was when you uncovered it, or?]

Jason Whiskeyjack:  Actually uh no we didn't, because um uh we didn't think anything of it because the, it wasn't brought to our attention that the residential school was there at the time or anything else.

Reporter: Sorry, just to go back to the, to the first slide, so there was a, there was the 2004, um but there was a date that said 2003, so I just want to make sure that was accurate, or was it supposed to be 2023?

Leah Redcrow: He just, he, yeah, he meant 2023.

Reporter:  Oh, okay thank you.

Leah Redcrow:  So it was accidentally excavated, so we know what's inside this communal burial or this mass grave, we know the contents of it.  Um and then uh with, with animals and natural erosion, the longer um that it's, that it stays like that the natural erosion will take place and it's becoming more shallow and shallow.  So I’m not exactly sure right now, but the last time we uh were told by our geophysicist it was 8 centimetres below the ground.  And so um so with natural erosion, um if, if the, if the content, the children's bodies that are inside um are not uh recovered, then natural erosion will take its course, um and so that's why one of the main reasons.

So with this site, just to let everyone know, just FYI, uh like Jason was saying, this residential school closed in 1931, and so with, because it closed so long ago, um like a lot of people, even my, I, I only found out that there was a residential school there in 2021.  I didn't know that.  Um and so with that the, the people who are going.  So essentially what's happening is the closer that modern burials get to where the residential school foundation is the more often and frequent they were uh finding unidentified child uh skeletal remains in the ground uh that, that were not protected, their bodies were not protected in caskets, which includes uh this mass, this mass grave of these children from the residential school.

So uh they, this, the excavator operators didn't know at the time that they were finding the children's bodies who died in residential school.  So they only, uh that connection was made after we began our investigation in uh 20, in the in late 2022, mid-2022 is when we were, uh when we told them that uh that that's what they were finding because it was an endemic crisis that was going on.  Essentially every time they went into the cemetery to dig a grave uh for a recently deceased member that was affiliated with like Catholic, that was Catholic or historically Catholic, um that's when they were uh finding these uh unidentified uh children's skeletal remains, uh the closer that they got to where the school foundation was.

Reporter: And so what was the procedure when these remains were uncovered, like was it, did they notify anyone, or was it just a matter of reburying what was uncovered?

Leah Redcrow:  So at the time um when, when these bodies uh were discovered they didn't know like what they were finding, so they would lay down tobacco and they would rebury them.

And um, but with what happened this past October, um nobody was actually digging anything, the ground, the bones were laying on top of the, uh of the mass graves, so they were, we assume uh they were disinterred by animals and brought to the surface.


Reporter: You don't yet have a number of, um of, of children or, or bodies right?  Was that correct?

Leah Redcrow:  No, we wouldn't know that exact number until the actual uh foren, the recovery uh investigation begins.  We can only assume, uh but we can't give an exact number or a cause of death at this point.  We would have to wait for that process to take place.

Reporter:  How many have been confirmed?  They sound like there was two or three.

Leah Redcrow:  Well, from the documentation that was provided to us by um, by the par, by the diocese uh from, from the recorded uh burials, there was 335 in the years that the residential school was operating at the Saddle Lake uh location, uh but the, the children that are in the communal burials, there is no uh records of it, so there's no, there's no trace in the burial records that would identify uh a communal burial or mass grave which would be a back to back or shortened, like one burial shortly after the other. There's no uh trace of that in the statistics of the burial records.

Reporter: Is that 335 that was missing, or just?

Leah Redcrow:  No, those are recorded students, uh recorded burials of children.  So um what we noticed was the, the dates that were the ages on the records, they were putting the child however, however long ago it was that the child was baptized is what they were putting as the age on the burial records in the early years, so we had to do a re-evaluation of that because there was conflicting information uh when we had, when we started translating the priest's uh Codex, cause he would talk about the children that died.  And so they, he would identify the children that died.  And then we started noticing that the age that he was identifying in these Codices was not the same age that was on the burial record, um but there, so the, these communal graves where the um, where the skeletal remains were located on top of the ground, uh those, those uh burials are not recorded, so we don't know exactly who they are.  We know of children who went missing um in the early 1920s is when we're somewhat projecting when this was created, uh this uh communal burial was created, but we don't know for sure, um that everything is just hypothesized right now until the actual investigation begins, and hopefully that will be this summer.  

Reporter:  And at this point uh you mentioned that you know there are certain children that are missing.  Do you know like a number of how many kids that, that fit that bill?

Leah Redcrow:  I don't really want to put a number.  I know one of them is from my family for sure.  Uh we know that she was 7 years old when she was in the school.  There's, I would say we, I have about a number of about 15 preliminary, but that could increase uh just because the records from the, from the 20s were, are very uh sparse, and um there's very uh, like we're still waiting for attendance lists as well.  Um but what we do know uh for, as far as missing children, um the children who did disappear, a lot of them disappeared after the 1921 census, and so we don't know where they went, but we do know that uh it would be pretty hard for a child very young to disappear uh from a, from an institution such as that.

And so I just also wanted to comment on uh, a lot of people ask us, well, why didn't the parents do anything, why, how did this happen, and how come nobody reported it to the police?  Well, the, first of all there was no such thing as a missing person's report back then, and when the children were admitted into the institution and this was inscribed into Canadian law under the Indian Act, that the parents had to forfeit all of their rights as parents to the institution, and the institution became the legal guardian.  So what could the parents have done?


Reporter: Um how's Saddle Lake doing with all of this coming out?

Leah Redcrow:  There’s mixed reactions for us.  Like so what, what we also need to reiterate is that um in the area called Saddle Lake during the time when the school was operating there was um two distinct reserves.  Uh there was the Saddle Lake 125, which was also called Thomas Hunter’s Reserve, and then there was the Blue Quills uh Band Number 127 Reserve, and that's uh the reserve that's applicable to this institution.

And so they were uh divided. They had their own land base, they had their own leadership, they had their own um memberships, and they also had their own religion. They were Protestant and we were Catholic, and we also had our own cemeteries.

So I can't really speak for the greater community of Saddle Lake, but I can say that for the intergenerational survivors and the survivors, uh we really want to ensure that our family members get a respectful burial that they deserve.  And we, we are thinking in the best interests of these children, because I don't think anybody would want to see, if that was your child, your grandchild in a unmarked uh communal burial like that with their bodies being disinterred by animals.

Reporter:  [inaudible]  It's just been ongoing right, year after year in terms of communities right across this country.  Uh how do folks at this table kind of cope with that as you continue to learn more about these discoveries?

Eric Large:  I'm Eric Large.  I'm the lead investigator with Acimowin Opaspiw Society.  Um right now our group, our society is focusing on Saddle Lake.  Uh the [ ] Blue Quill investigation uh we're not so much uh concerned, if that's the correct word.  But uh there will, I imagine there'll be interest from other communities in, in our investigation.  We're busy in different phases of, of our work.

Reporter: [inaudible] approximate number of skeletal remains in the [inaudible] site is 50? 

Leah Redcrow:  No, she asked me how many, uh how many children do we know of that don't have death certificates or burial records.  But that's, that's a very uh, we don't know, we won't know exactly how many bodies are inside the communal burial until the, they're recovered.  We can only guess.

Reporter:  Can I ask how this work, I can't imagine it's not expensive to do this. How is it being funded?

Leah Redcrow:  Well, we're trying to uh work out, we're waiting.  We requested for the Department of Crown Indigenous relations to fund it through um the International Commission on Missing Persons.  Um so I think they're in the negotiation uh talks right now, because right now they have a technical agreement with them.  However they're looking to amend that agreement uh so that they can have different, an MOU with communities who require their support.  And so uh we're hoping that the Canadian government uh takes responsibility for this situation uh because they, these children were essentially under their care, and it was the Canadian laws that um were in effect that, when these children were detained.

So you know this is the part of reconciliation that's very difficult.  Um you know with all, with all around the world there's Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that are struck, and always the last phase in those uh in those Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is finding the dead.  And so this is not an abnormal situation.  This is common, especially when there's been mass human rights violations.

Reporter: I have a question for Jason [inaudible].

Jason Whiskeyjack:  No, uh actually my father was in the residential school.

Reporter:  I was wondering if you have family

Jason Whiskeyjack:  I probably have, within history I think there was um, like I said, back in, uh back in our, in our days we weren't uh really informed.  Uh basically back when, when uh the survivors, they wouldn't really want to tell us their stories because they had real deep down, you know, uh hard, hardship to deal with, so our parents never really taught us anything about residential schools because they wanted to forget it.  So I can't really give you a straight answer. 

Reporter:  So the next question we may not have an answer to.  Um do you know of any of your ancestors if they attended or if they’re missing?

Jason Whiskeyjack:  I wouldn't even have a clue on that one.

Leah Redcrow:  We have uh burial records that are that of uh former students that Jason is related to, but uh we're in the process of assembling all of these documents um before we distribute them to the family, so we're in the process of, of um getting them all together so we, we still have 40 years of burial records to translate.  We've only gotten uh from 1890 until 1940 done, and so we're trying, we, we're trying to um.  We only have one French translator, and everything's written in French, and so uh we're trying to uh space that out before we start distributing all these, all the names.  Um but yes, Jason does have family members that did die in the residential school when it was at Sacred Heart.

Eric Shirt:  The, the, um just to make a comment.  My name is Eric Shirt and I'm a Councillor, and I was the Chief uh when I signed the letter of support authorizing, authorizing this work, this important work.  This work is so important that uh it hopefully will provide answers to a lot of people.

I went to residential school, and even when I was in residential school as kids we were murmurs of suddenly a kid, the kid was gone, we don't know where he is.  When I was Chief there was family members that came up to me and said, ‘You know, what about my sister who was in residential school?’  We don't know, we don't have the answers for that.  Hopefully through the DNA stuff we can find it.

And a lot of the stuff that we hear is anecdotal, but as the years go by that anecdotal evidence gets smaller and smaller.  And these things started in the 1800s.  Remember that, 1800s, that people, Indian, native people lost control of their kids, you know.  And, and the system could do anything they want without, without any recourse or without having to answer anybody, you know.  Think about that, and think about the despair that, that's uh the parents faced, you know.  It really is a, uh something that needs to be resolved.  

And, and I think they're doing a good job in terms of doing that, in terms of uh for our nations.  And during the course of these meetings, consultations, we hopefully will have more anecdotal evidence so that we can start identifying these, these kids that were, you know, that were, that, that had uh suffered these mysterious deaths, you know.

So uh I think that hopefully that answers some of your, your, your questions.  This is a uh major effort, and we hope to get the support of everybody in terms of resolving this injustice.  Thank you.

Reporter:  That leads [inaudible] to my next question was, you know, a big part of this has been trying to find proof and answers of the unmarked graves and, and missing children.  At this present time how much closer do you feel you are to those answers?

Leah Redcrow:  Well thanks to the diocese and the support of the diocese we have um the very, uh we're very confident we know uh where uh the children, that this is where the children were buried.  Um and we can determine that through a multitude of factors, um because the records that we have identify where um people, in the sacramental registers it'll identify a specific location of where a person is buried, uh when they were buried, who was there.  Um and so those have been uh extremely uh vital for us.  But also the knowledge from our community of exactly what they were finding uh before um they knew about there being a former residential school at the site.

Um and they, all these uh accidental uh exhumations of uh child skeletal remains all follow a common trait of uh, you know, no caskets, um in, and wrapped in cloth, very shallow in the ground.  And um, so with that we do know from the historical research that um the parents, when the children were dying at home, the parents were purchasing caskets and burying them 6 feet in the ground, and the parents were there, um but also uh with that we did um, we were able to make other determinations to, of like how many students, um like were had recorded burials.

Um but the other thing we did determine as well is that there is no uh cemetery at the St Paul location.  Uh for the most part children were transported back to Sacred Heart for uh burial when they passed away at uh the St Paul location.  Uh the parents weren't always present when that happened.  Uh they weren't notified a lot of times, and um we don't know, uh these are, are difficult uh situations to understand because the people um who were overseeing this, this, the student body at that time in the schools are, have all since passed away, so it's very hard to get answers.  Uh but we have gotten a lot of information uh thanks to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate opening up their archives for us uh to review the priests’ journals which do give a significant amount of detailed information which we’ll be releasing in our first series investigation report next month.

Reporter:  And a lot of communities have struggled with this decision to excavate these suspected

Leah Redcrow:  And try work in and do it very respectfully, or and try work and, and do it very respectfully, or nature will take its course, or animals will keep disinterring them.  And we don't feel that that is a very, no, no human being uh deserves to have their bodies um scavenged by animals.  And so we just want to make sure that this is uh done uh respectfully, uh respecting the uh cultural protocols of our community, of the children.  Um because it's essentially a very limited time frame uh for when the natural forces will totally erode and it'll become exposed, and the animals will just keep bringing uh the children's body parts to the surface.

Reporter:  And so when you explain that to the community, like what was, what was the reaction you got, families in survivors?

Leah Redcrow:  Well we, first, we didn't present it to the greater community.  We presented it to the survivors.  And I think they just felt a lot of relief, and they felt uh, you know, like, that they wanted to bury them respectfully is what the common, um the common um agreeance is, that they want the children buried respectfully, with respect.

Um we know that this might seem like out of cultural norms, but this is not a very normal situation.  Uh it's either, it's either we can, we have to get it done or uh we let it, we let the um nature continue to do it, and it's, and it'll be a very, very um very horrific situation that will uh unfold within the next couple years.

Reporter: That sensitivity I'm wonder if anyone on the panel the Motions about, about the excavation.

Jason Whiskeyjack:  I guess um basically uh I'm one of the community leaders, and pretty well every funeral I uh actually go and volunteer to uh do the excavations of uh of funerals in our nation.  And I've, uh I've learned to watch actually and study the ground before I actually start digging nowadays.  And uh because a lot of a, a lot of our people don't have this kind of uh what I've done so far all these years.  And it seems like a lot of people don't believe you when you tell, you tell, tell your story about it, because you, you know um like I said, a lot of people don't believe me on I could get on that machine and tell you within the first scoop of that bucket if there's somebody there or not.  That's how um well I train myself, and um a lot of times people are stubborn.  They don't listen to you when uh you tell them there's somebody there.  They say, ‘No, there's not.’  Well, we go a little deeper, and I scratch the surface, and sure enough there's somebody there.

It happened so many times that, you know I, I've learned to actually uh try and show that method to the people firsthand so it doesn't happen to them.  And now I think uh in the near future that's what we're going to be doing is training people to have that same concept when they're doing the burials in our nation.

So that's, that's about it.  Yeah.

Reporter:  You mentioned earlier the um, the sparse, like the lack of documentation, how difficult that makes it um to find proof and to find um evidence of where they could be buried.  Is there any archives you don't have access to at the moment that would be vital in order to find more proof?

Leah Redcrow:  Well, we have access to like, the sacramental registers which recorded the life events of students.  So from birth until uh death.  And so those are all with, within the home parish of the school.  Every school had a home parish where the life events of students were recorded.

Um but the, the main, uh the main, I guess the main religious order we're having serious uh communication barriers with are the Sisters of Charity.  They will not give us their Sisters’ Chronicles, and we need them, um because essentially uh what happened with the, the priests were very comprehensive in their journals, uh but what happened was um from their early, from about 1915 till about 1930 they kind of took a break from their Codex Historicus and focused on writing this all Cree syllabics newspaper called The Sacred Heart.  And so then there, so there's a big kind of like time gap missing.

Uh but the Sisters of Charity have those documents, and they refuse to give them to us.  Um they sent me a spreadsheet of uh names that they found that they, that of, where students died with.  That's kind of irrelevant.  We need to know who are all the children in the school?  What were their names?  Um because there's also a big gap in records between 19, I would say about 1919 to 1940 uh for the, uh for the quarterly returns and the admission and discharges from the RG10s.  Um and, and from what I understand they were accidentally destroyed, uh something like that, so there are big uh time, like as far as the burial, like that the, the issue is not like the burial record.  Like we know which children died.  But just where specifically that burial is.  There's no plot maps.  Um so we can't specifically point out where that child could have been buried.  But we know that they died.  Uh but with, where the, where the big complexity is uh especially with this uh communal burial is, that it's not documented, so we need to try and pinpoint who were the children that are, that were in the institution.  who are the children that disappeared.  And then, so we can better pinpoint of who, uh who they, who the children are in the uh communal burial. 

But another complexity to this is that it also served as an orphanage, and they would take orphan children out of charity.  So there may not be living descendants for those orphan children that were in there.  Um so, and but they also took a lot of uh Metis uh children.  So we're hoping that the Metis, we're going to be also sending out the invites and uh notices to the Metis, uh the Metis locals to let their family members know if they had anyone in Sacred Heart to please come to our engagement meeting so we can discuss our plans with them.

Reporter:  Um and I, I believe that there were parish records that said like 212 or something like that people died in the time frame that the residential school was at, in Saddle Lake.  This new 300 number.  Where, where is that coming from?

Leah Redcrow:  So, so with that, so, like I said, the um what like on the, on these burial records we noticed that the, what the age that was on there was not matching with like the ages that were mentioned in other documents.  So say if a child.  Um okay, so for example there was a child who died, and we know that she was 8 years old when she died, but her burial record said she was 8 months old.  So, and so with, for the early years, for the first 30 years, we, like we have the burial certificates, and so it's hard for us to uh pinpoint an exact age of that child.  Um so what we were also going by is who was the um official from the school signing off on the, on the uh burial certificate.  And uh for those children that were um, that we believe were associated with the school, it was the school principal signing them off.

Uh but just at the time when we did that first initial uh disclosure, preliminary uh disclosure, we did not, um we did not consider any children under seven, and we did not consider any children over like 18.  Uh but we now know that there are students who were uh students in the school who were even 19 uh when they died there, and they were, they were students.  So um like, like I said, they were apprehending children very young, um and they were not releasing them when they should have been.  So they were supposed to be in there uh from when they were 7 years old, and discharged by the time they're 18, but we have evidence, and um family members were detained as young as 3 years old and released at 19 or 20.  Yeah.

Reporter: Uh you mentioned earlier how um the chief medical office of the province and the RCMP uh said they refused to give you support.  Could you elaborate on that a little bit more?  What answers did they give you?

Leah Redcrow:  So essentially they, they refused to come and collect the remote, the remains that were located on top of the mass grave.  They refused to come and uh collect them.

And the office of the medical examiner refused to meet with us uh because we wanted to create a protocol agreement with him because we informed him like, there is a serious crisis uh happening in our, well it's the community cemetery, but the closer that it encroaches to where this residential school was operating is the more frequent and uh constant that people are finding unidentified uh child skeletons that we believe are uh from the residential school.  And so he absolutely refused to meet with us.  Uh he told us he uh doesn't excavate mass graves of children who died of disease.  Um and also that the RCMP would need to uh get him involved, but he, he believes they died of a natural death, so he said that doesn't fall under his responsibility under the Fatalities Act of Alberta.

And the RCMP told us we don't collect old bones from cemeteries, so that, that's the kind of uh negligence and uh institutional racism that the RCMP continue to show towards these children a 100 years later.

Reporter:  This was just RCMP, or was it?

Leah Redcrow:  It was the RCMP and the office of the medical examiner, um and so he put that he, office of the medical examiner refused to meet with us.  We tried to meet with him for a year to discuss a path forward to get his support, and he absolutely refused to provide it or meet with us

Reporter:  Do you have any potential timeline when that excavation might happen [inaudible]?

Leah Redcrow:  Um well, after we do the engagement meetings and we consult with uh the different affected uh families, descendants, we're hoping for this summer, but it could be, we never know because we are still waiting for the Canadian government to uh amend their technical agreement with the ICMP and approve for, um to, to cover all the costs for it.  Um we're hoping that that's done uh quite soon uh so we can begin preparing and getting the appropriate uh infrastructure in place at the site.  Uh we're going to need to have a funeral director.   Uh we're going to need to um as, like secure vendors for procurement of caskets, headstones, uh make a repatriation plan with communities of the children are identified as not being from our community.  Um so there's quite a bit of work.  So we're hoping that gets done right away, but hopefully this summer, but we can't put a definite uh start date on it yet.  Hopefully soon we'll be able to know and we'll let you guys know cause like we said, these, these uh recoveries of in of these communal burials, they're very expensive, and they also have to be uh very, we have to be very transparent uh through you, through the media, to let the country know what's going on.  And so um, and also so we can let the families know, the country know, and so we can try and um begin the healing and reconciliation process from uh the dark legacy that these institutions left behind.

Okay, thank you all so much for coming.  We appreciate you a lot.  Uh we got lunch for you guys, so don't too far if you're hungry, uh we have lunch that's uh being served outside for our, our media and also our directors, we can, uh if you guys are hungry can go ahead and eat.

Transcript compiled by Nina Green 29 January 2024, revised 30 January 2024.