Almost five decades ago the remains of 28 First Nations people were dug up on a property south of Ponoka with their future remaining uncertain, until now.
The remains, mostly youths and children and a few adults, found a resting place west of Ponoka on Highway 53 Saturday, Oct. 18 thanks to the dedicated effort from members of the Samson Cree Nation.
From 1965 to 1966, the University of Alberta exhumed 25 sets of human remains from 24 graves on Matejka Farms south of Ponoka. Nobody at the time knew what to do with them. Eventually they were taken to the University of Alberta for safekeeping.
Later in 2007, the partial remains of two other individuals and one complete set of another were found by the then Calgary Power (now AltaLink), which was replacing an electrical pole.
Some research showed that those remains belonged to the Sharphead people, inhabitants of a reserve in the area in the 1800s.
Returning these bodies to the land became a bureaucratic mess for the 15 descendant First Nations, who had been trying since 2007 to have them reburied, explained Beverly Crier, who works for Samson Cree Nation in the intergovernmental office. She focuses on the history, language and treaties of the Maskwacis Cree people.
“Alberta Culture, with the assistance of Service Alberta, Aboriginal Relations – Aboriginal Consultation Office and the University of Alberta met with representatives of the respective First Nations over the years to rebury the remains at a new cemetery site,” said Crier.
She says disease, drought and famine from approximately 1883 to 1893 caused the population to dwindle in the area and members of the nation dispersed and moved to other areas. Oral histories indicate there were some stories of attempt at genocide of the people in the area, added Crier.
During that 10-year period, there were reports of more than 100 people buried, some of them in a cemetery once owned by a Methodist mission. “The youngest was three-years-old.”
“Between that period, it was not a good time in this area,” added Crier.
No policies dealing with First Nations remains
Up until 1905, Alberta was part of the Northwest Territories and there was no policy detailing how to deal with human remains, let alone those that belonged to First Nations. Crier said her biggest challenge in repatriation was proving ownership.
Crier says First Nations’ tradition is to return the remains to where they belonged but federal and provincial red tape, created a challenge.
She said on the federal side, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada claimed this was out of their jurisdiction. After years of efforts, however, the remains were reburied.
“It was still very emotional. There was a lot of closure,” said Crier.
A wake was held in Maskwacis the day before the reburial with many in attendance. Members of the Samson Cree Nation facilitated the burial and wake due to their close proximity to the new burial site.
Government officials, residents of Maskwacis and others attended the reburial on the 14-acres of land the Government of Alberta purchased. This is the same property Ponoka County councillors had zoning issues with the province.
For Crier, seeing the remains find a final resting home was a time to honour those people who died many years ago.
“It was sad and happy at the same time. It just brought closure because they (the remains) were orphans. They had nobody to speak for them,” stated Crier.
“We know that their spirits were happy,” she added.
She plans to speak with the province on legislation. “My suggestion will be to create a process and we will be doing that with the province.”
She says the work ahead will take some time as amendments in the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act will need to be made. Members of First Nations across the country and Alberta legislation will also have to be considered.