Search for unmarked graves at site of former northern Alberta residential school to begin soon


WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A search for potential unmarked burials and graves at a former residential school site in northern Alberta will begin March 31, Indigenous leaders say.

The search will take place at the former Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, 730 kilometres north of Edmonton.

The deaths of 89 children who attended the school between 1880 and 1953 have been confirmed by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Leaders from the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation say they will work together to start the search for unmarked burials and graves. 

“[The work is] a necessary step in addressing the intergenerational trauma that the residential school experience has created for so many Indigenous people,” Kendrick Cardinal, president of the Fort Chipeywan Métis Association, said in a news release Wednesday.

The search will include aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar and other methods. The work will also include collecting testimonials from elders.

“The work in Fort Chipewyan … is critical to uncovering the truth about Holy Angels Residential School,” Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Peter Powder said in a statement.

School closed in 1974

Holy Angels was founded in 1874 at Fort Chipewyan in what is now Alberta, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. 

The Roman Catholic residential school was moved to a new building in 1881, but the old school site is now part of the Mikisew Cree First Nation reserve.

From the 1950s onward, Holy Angels increasingly became a child welfare institution, reads the school’s entry on the NCTR website.

By the 1960s, upwards of 140 children per year were forced to attend and enrolled at Holy Angels. 

The school closed in 1974.

Holy Angels is one of 25 residential school locations in Alberta as recognized in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Kapawe’no First Nation said Tuesday that ground-penetrating radar and a specialized drone were used to find evidence of 169 potential graves at the former Grouard Mission site. This file photograph shows Bishop Emile Grouard with school children, circa 1924. (Submitted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan)

Cardinal said the upcoming search will be difficult for many in the community.  

“It’s a really, really tough path moving forward but we’re going to get through it,” he said Thursday.

“I strongly believe that this will make our people stronger, more people wiser in decision-making and future dealings in  any steps moving forward.”

Earlier this week, Sydney Halcrow, chief of the Kapawe’no First Nation at Grouard, Alta., shared details of the discovery of 169 potential graves at the site of a former residential school site in that community.

The possible graves were identified using ground-penetrating radar and a drone at the former Grouard Mission site, about 370 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Halcrow said the discovery validates the horrifying testimonies survivors have been sharing.

“Our little warriors have waited for us to find them. Now we will ensure they rest in peace,” he said Tuesday. 

Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said Indigenous leaders want the Fort Chipewyan search to ensure that any child buried at the former residential school site is given the dignity, respect and love all children deserve.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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