George Muldoe emerges from a hedgerow into a field of short, dry grass, followed by reporters and TV cameras.
“The grave should be right around here somewhere,” he said, motioning to the ground, his voice shaking. He points to the south. “I know there’s some over there, here and some back there.” He gestures behind him.
Muldoe, 79, doesn’t know who he helped bury that cold day in the late 1950s when he was a 15-year-old student at the Edmonton Indian Residential School. He and his companions were assigned grave detail, seemingly at random, and given $5 for the work.
“We never did know anybody that we buried,” he said. “There was never a preacher, there was no relatives, not even supervisors from (the school). Nothing. (They would) literally throw them off the truck … It was up to us to do the rest.”
This week, Muldoe and other survivors returned to the grounds of the former school for an event organized by Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centre, which has operated on the site since 1974.
It was the first such gathering since ground-penetrating radar searches at residential school sites across Canada began confirming the existence of hundreds of unmarked graves. Muldoe and others spoke beneath a pavilion erected on a gopher-pocked field where the school’s main building stood before it was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances in 2000.
“It took us three days to bury one person,” recalled Muldoe. “We started Friday, and we finished late Sunday night, because it was January, and probably 30-below. It’s one thing I’ll never forget.”
School took students from across Canada
The Edmonton Indian Residential School was operated by the United Church between 1924 and 1968 in what is now Sturgeon County. The school took students from across Western and Northern Canada, many of whom experienced abuse. According to a 2000 Edmonton Journal article, at least 80 people filed lawsuits alleging physical and sexual abuse during their time at the school.
Muldoe, who is from the Kispiox Band in northwestern B.C., was among hundreds of Gitxsan children taken to Edmonton to attend school. The reason Muldoe was sent inland is because there was no room for him at the Port Alberni residential school, which his siblings attended.
“The reason why we were here is all the residential schools in B.C. were full, and Edmonton was the overflow,” he told attendees. “That’s why there are so many nations here. We had Haida, Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Haisla. There’s about five, six, seven different nations here.”
He recalled coming to Edmonton, by himself, on a coal train filled with other children. “Every single window was full, with little faces,” he said.
Other students came from the territories and from Alberta itself. Myrtle Calahaisn, 89, a member of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, attended the school between 1937 and the mid-1940s. Her mother got a job as the reverend’s housekeeper but was not permitted to enter the school. Calahaisn could see her once a week from the school’s basement windows as she left to go into town.
“The basement windows were so high. Two girls would lift me up to see my mother coming out, getting in the car,” she said. “That’s all I seen of her.”
Much of Calahaisn’s time at the school was frightening and confusing, though she is thankful she had older cousins who protected her. It was a volatile and often violent environment, with kids from around the country forced into close contact.
She spoke only Cree when she first arrived and remembers sleeping beneath her bed to hide from a particularly frightening matron.
“It was a lonely place,” she recalled.
The United Church apologized for its role in the residential school program in 1986.
‘Additional burial sites … are known to exist’
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation lists nine students who are known to have died while attending the Edmonton school, the most recent in 1961. Those who attended this week’s gathering say there are undoubtedly more who are unaccounted for.
Last month, Poundmaker’s Lodge said survivors have identified unmarked burial sites on the school grounds, as well as on an adjoining parcel of land owned by the provincial government. Some of the sites have already been confirmed with ground-penetrating radar.
“Moving forward, there is a plan in place to continue to work with ground-penetrating radar in further exploration of additional burial sites which are known to exist,” the organization wrote in a statement.
Hal Eagletail, a Tsuut’ina Nation elder at Poundmaker’s, said a “major corporation” which wishes to remain unnamed offered to fund searches of the site. He described the amount of work left to do as “huge.”
When sites are identified “how we’re going to deal with that depends entirely on the customs and local practices of the nations affected by these sites,” he said.
“They may mark them, they may have going-home ceremonies — calling home the spirit ceremonies. They may just leave them as is, or they may do a reburial.”
He added there is a direct link between what happened at the school, and what now goes on at the treatment centre.
“Historical trauma is a direct effect of why we have treatment centres, why we have high jail (rates) among the Indigenous population. We need to get to the root of those problems through healing, but also through economic growth.”
Muldoe, for his part, thinks that where possible, children buried at the site should be exhumed and returned to their home nations — though he remains doubtful of this happening. He wants the reality of what happened to him and his classmates better reflected in history books and in school curriculum.
“I think it’s only the beginning, and it’s going to take a long, long, time to clean up, if it ever gets cleaned up,” he said.
The National Residential School Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.