Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
The organization investigating the missing children and unmarked burials connected to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School in Saddle Lake Cree Nation says the majority of the students died from tuberculosis contracted by drinking unpasteurized raw cow’s milk from livestock kept on site.
The Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS) disclosed the findings of its first preliminary report Tuesday afternoon.
The school was open between 1890 and 1970, first in Lac La Biche, then on Saddle Lake Cree Nation before moving to its St. Paul location. Saddle Lake Cree Nation is located in central Alberta.
The AOS says records from the Catholic church provided information on how many children died, which is now estimated to be nearly 400.
“We have now found out how the majority of these children have died… it was hundreds of children,” AOS executive director Leah Redcrow said.
“People like to accept the fact that these children just died of tuberculosis because First Nations people are natural carriers of tuberculosis. That’s a farce.
“These children died in the hundreds from drinking unpasteurized raw cow’s milk,” she alleged. “They also died of many other fatal milk-borne illnesses.”
Redcrow said the investigation found that the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs didn’t impose safety measures for the milk, nor did the Department of Agriculture complete its mandated livestock testing.
Global News has reached out to both federal ministries for comment.
In a news release, the AOS said it has “physical and documented evidence of genocide.”
Redcrow said that school staff knew the milk wasn’t good.
“The school administrators knew this… That’s why the children were getting sick and dying and not the school administrators.”
Records show children had to get medical clearance before they were admitted to the school. They were healthy when they arrived, but a month later, they were sick and many died.
“The school had a cream separator,” Redcrow said. “All the cream would get loaded into a rail cart and be shipped off for pasteurization. All the raw skim milk filled with disease was fed to the children.”
The preliminary AOS report also detailed “disclosures from intergenerational survivors, whose parents witnessed homicides in the St Paul site.”
There were reports that a school disciplinarian killed male students by pushing them down the stairs.
The report alleges the man “would then threaten to kill the boys that witnessed if they said anything. The children were then groomed to state the death ‘was an accident’ if probed.”
The disciplinarian allegedly worked at the school from 1935 until 1942 and died in the late 1960s.
These victims do not have recorded burial, the investigative report stated.
For years, community members reported accidentally uncovering unmarked graves and a possible mass grave site at the Sacred Heart Cemetery, which was used by the residential school and is still used as a Catholic cemetery, investigators said.
The report says there have been about 100 instances of unidentified child remains being found in the cemetery.
“These children are not buried in caskets,” Redcrow said. “They’re just little skeletons in the ground, one- to three-feet deep.
“We still bury people here and that’s how we were finding the children.”
Ground-penetrating radar work will continue next year.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we wanted to let the other investigations nationwide know to check the school records for any documentation on the livestock,” Redcrow said.
Saddle Lake Cree Nation accidentally unearthed partial remains at the site of the former residential school in May 2022.
Last year, and following the announcement that more than 200 potential burial sites were detected at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Saddle Lake Cree Nation formed the AOS to investigate possible burial sites.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.