Search for unmarked graves unearths memories from former 'Indian hospital' patients

As Alberta waits for results of a recent ground penetrating radar search of Camsell Hospital, northerners recall years of scolding, experimentation and abuse at the former Indigenous treatment facility.

Northerners recall abuse at the facility as crews process results from the recent search for graves

A teacher with students during the 1960s at the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton, Alta., one of 29 facilities named in a class-action lawsuit. (Alberta Provincial Archives)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Don Gruben Sr. spent many of his early years traveling between his home community of Inuvik and the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton. 

Originally sent south to treat a broken leg, hospital staff told Gruben, then six years old, that he also had a collapsed lung. 

"To bring these things up, it hits the heart because I was one of the lucky ones," Gruben said. "I survived and I'm grateful for that."

The former Camsell Hospital in Edmonton is one of 29 segregated medical facilities that treated Indigenous children throughout the 20th century. 

Also known as Indian hospitals, former patients — some of whom stayed for months at a time — recall being vulnerable to medical experimentation, violent scolding and abuse. 

The developer is now waiting for results of a ground penetrating radar search on the grounds of the former Charles Camsell hospital in Edmonton. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"When I was in Camsell Hospital I was afraid to disobey what was being asked of me," Gruben said. "I was scared, they had their own ways of making you listen."

The Edmonton site is now being searched for unmarked graves — a process that will provide closure and comfort for northern families, said Duane Smith, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) CEO. 

As a larger facility than the northern treatment centres, residents of the Northwest Territories were often sent to Camsell Hospital. 

Smith emphasized the scale of its impact on Inuvialuit residents in his region. 

The search for Indigenous grave sites provides accountability on the part of the federal government, Smith said, "and hopefully some form of comfort for those who had family members that didn't make it back."

Camsell, along with the 28 other facilities, are listed in a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit against the federally funded segregated hospitals. Edmonton based lawyer Steven Cooper said that while the total number of northern patients at the Camsell site is unknown, he's confident it is in the hundreds, with the total number of victims across the country believed to be in the tens of thousands. 

Ann Hardy, a Métis woman from Fort Smith, N.W.T, is the suit's representative plaintiff. While she said it is difficult to relive her time spent at the Alberta hospital, she remains committed to speaking out against the Canadian sites in order to educate others on the realities of Canada's history.  

"I will always educate," she said, adding that through the challenges of reliving her trauma, she's motivated to speak up on behalf of her parents and grandparents who "bore their troubles quietly." 

"I will continue to fight for it and to make sure that the future is better for my grandchildren," Hardy said. 

Ann Hardy, a Métis woman from Fort Smith, N.W.T, is one of the chief plaintiffs in a class action suit alleging decades of abuse at federally run segregated hospitals. (Submitted by Ann Hardy)

For Hardy, and others, uncovering bodies at Camsell would not be surprising. 

"We have been saying for many years now that there have been unrecognized deaths, unrecognized graves, things that happened in the residential schools and in the federal Indian hospitals that had never been noted before by the government or in society," she said.

"It isn't news to us, because we've known about it. It's confirmation of what we've known."

Norman Yakeleya, Dene National Chief, said that the search for unmarked graves will bring closure for those whose loved ones never returned home from Camsell. Still, the use of ground penetrating radar does not replace an apology, he said. 

"People suffered just as they suffered in the residential schools," Yakeleya said of the hospitals. "People died without notifying the families, patients were experimented on for medical purposes, we have a lot of our people who suffered in these Indian residential hospitals."

Dene Nation is another plaintiff in the lawsuit against the federal hospitals. 

As discussions on the case are legally required to occur in person, the case has come to a near standstill throughout the last 16 months of the pandemic. 

In the interim, Cooper said the legal team continues to work with experts on properly defining which institutions are included in the Indian hospital system as well as the timeline of when exactly they operated.  

"Like most class actions, there is an equal focus on compensation and validation," Cooper said. "Canada talks a good game in terms of reconciliation but has a well documented history of fighting cases of historical injustice." 

Yakeleya stressed that there is no justice until Canadian officials publicly acknowledge their wrong doings, visit communities and sit with Elders to learn the impact of its colonial institutions.  

"We want to make things right through the path of reconciliation, it is Canada's move now," he said. "Canada has to have a heart. And so we wait for them to apologize and set things right." 

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools:

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

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.

The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.

In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason. 

In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.

With files from Anna Desmarais