Residents in Fort Chipewyan helping to do repairs on an elder’s home were shocked last week to find human remains buried near the house.
Crews doing excavation work to stop water seepage in Mary Voyageur’s basement unearthed what locals say was a skull and some other bones.
Work was immediately stopped, the area cordoned off and the remains taken by RCMP to forward on to the provincial medical examiner’s office for anthropologists to examine, said Sgt. Gordon Patey with the Wood Buffalo RCMP in Fort Chipewyan.
“They will be hopefully expediting the process and getting back to us as soon as possible,” Patey said.
According to the sergeant, locals indicate the area might be the site of an old burial ground created centuries ago during a deadly outbreak of the Spanish flu.
“My understanding from talking to Chief (Steve) Courtoreille here is that there was a mass burial site there, because about 200 years ago there was a Spanish flu epidemic, so they buried the deceased in that space,” Patey said.
According to locals’ stories, remains were discovered when originally digging the basement to Voyageur’s house many years ago. Additionally, work done on a neighbouring house to install a water or sewer line around 40 years ago led to the discovery of remains from five or six bodies, which were taken and reburied in the cemetery.
If that is the case, the sergeant said they expect more human remains may be buried in the area, and as such have notified the municipality, which has contacted the provincial department of Culture to give staff there the heads up.
“What we’re waiting for from the anthropologists is a dating on the remains,” Patey said. “If they’re really old, it’s out of the RCMP’s hands and now it’s with the province to deal with.”
A similar issue being handled by the provincial government has surfaced in the Janvier-Conklin area of the municipality of Wood Buffalo, where a roadway was constructed very near to an old burial site.
Given the long history of the community, Patey said the existence of such burial grounds in Fort Chipewyan would not be unlikely.
“Fort Chip is the oldest community in Alberta, so there’s going to be probably a lot of different burial sites around here, I would imagine,” he said.
Despite indications that the remains may be historical, Patey said the RCMP are still treating it as suspicious.
“It was found where you wouldn’t actually think you would find it, so when it’s unearthed we have to examine it to make sure that it isn’t of a suspicious nature; we have to try to get an approximate time or year of death, that kind of thing,” Patey said. “That’s what the anthropologists will do for us and the medical examiners will send us back a report.”
If it’s not of a suspicious nature, he said the remains will be returned to the community for reburial.
Patey has requested the examination be done as quickly as possible so that work can finish on Voyageur’s house before winter.