Excavation work resumed Thursday morning at the site of the former Camsell Hospital, the Edmonton facility that for decades was used to treat Indigenous people with tuberculosis — and where some of those patients are believed to have died and been buried on the grounds.
The Inglewood-neighbourhood area near the hospital, located at 128th Street and 114th Avenue, has been slated for the construction of residential properties.
This summer, the developer initiated a ground-penetrating radar search; crews dug up 13 spots that were flagged but only found debris.
But only a portion of the property was searched in that first phase. Over the next few days, crews will excavate 21 anomalies detected along its eastern side.
“There have been reports and stories over the years about people that were at the Camsell that passed away being buried on-site, specifically in the southeast corner of the property,” Chief Calvin Bruneau of the Papaschase First Nation said Wednesday.
Papaschase elders will again be present to observe the work, he said. If remains are found, Bruneau said next steps will require input from multiple treaty areas.
Indigenous people from across the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta were sent to what was then called the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital. It started accepting patients in 1945 when it was run by the federal government. The hospital was eventually transferred to the province and closed in 1996.
For decades, former patients shared accounts of people being buried at the hospital.
There are reports of physical, mental and sexual abuse, accounts of forced sterilization, shock therapy and experiments with tuberculosis vaccines on patients without their consent.
Victor Bruno, an elder from Maskwacis, Alta., spent 26 months at the hospital in the 1950s when he was a child.
“We definitely went through a lot of abuse,” he said Thursday. “I once told my friend I felt like I went through a torture chamber.”
Bruno, a survivor of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, remembers only being able to wave at his parents through shut windows when they made the journey to visit.
He believes he contracted tuberculosis because of the condition of residential schools.
“They weren’t looked after properly.”
Searching for closure
The search is being funded by the property’s developer. Architect Gene Dub said he was moved to act by the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“When Kamloops was discovered, suddenly we felt this area had to be searched to bring more truth and clarity to the situation.”
The cost is expected to run between $200,000 and $250,000.
Dub said the area being investigated is planned for eight single-family homes but if any remains are found they will not be built.
A memorial garden is planned for the northern side of the property.
The property is on the traditional lands of the Papaschase people, who have been fighting for years to regain recognition as an official First Nation.
Bruneau said supporting the effort to help find any possible remains is part of being a steward for the city.
“If they died there then they were just buried and without any proper respect or ceremony,” he said.
“And so it’s about respecting our people and our loved ones and then trying to bring closure to families.”
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