A gravedigger’s worst nightmare

The Grouard Cemetery Committee has worked very hard on its mapping project. In front, left-right are Vicky Barsalou and Pearl Sandor., In the back row, left-right, are Frank Chalifoux, project lead Therese Morris, Monica Kreiner and Shirley Anderson. Missing is Hector Goudreau.

Chris Clegg
South Peace News

Clarence Cardinal has been there and done that!
As one of several gravediggers at Grouard, he has had to endure every gravedigger’s worst nightmare: digging into another gravesite. It has occurred a few times at the Grouard Cemetery, where many graves are unmarked.
“We used to hit some (gravesites) there,” says Cardinal. “But how did we know? There were no markers, no mounds. There was no way you could tell.”
It is indescribable the feeling one would endure.
“I’d say a prayer and keep going,” says Cardinal. “There was nothing else you could do. We didn’t know. We didn’t blame ourselves.”
Grouard resident Bertha Auger remembers how the graves became unmarked because she was there.
“We did it,” she says, guessing it was in the 1960s. “We had a cleanup crew and there were all wooden crosses. The willows overgrew the whole graveyard. We decided to get rid of the willows. We (cut them and) piled them up.”
It was then someone decided to burn them.
“I said, ‘Don’t set the fire yet,’” Auger recalls. “(Someone) set it on fire and it burned everything and all the rest of the wooden crosses.”
The fire spread from the willow pile to nearby dried grass. Helped by a stiff breeze, it wasn’t long before the entire graveyard was ablaze. The crew got some wet sacks and water and eventually got the fire under control but it was too late. Al that was left were smouldering crosses.
With nothing left to mark the graves, people started digging randomly and came across sites already used. This went on until a few years ago when a group of concerned citizens decided to put a stop to it and form the Grouard Cemetery Committee Mapping Project. The goal was simple yet difficult and expensive: locate as many graves as possible and mark them.
The committee held an update at the graveyard Sept. 14. A few dozen people attended. Some wanted to hear the update while others came to pay respects to friends and members.
Depending on who you talk to, there are at least 1,362 people buried at the site, perhaps more. Committee member Vicky Barsalou says there are 1,233 known people buried there and 169 “not known to date.” Any way you slice it, it is a lot.
“Can you imagine how (gravediggers) felt?” asks Barsalou, when finding old gravesites.
However, since the mapping project began, people are phoning before digging. It is very satisfying and fulfilling to Barsalou and other members of the committee. No one wants a repeat of what Cardinal and other gravediggers endured.
Auger led the group in prayer at the update. She asked the Creator to help each person attending and those buried to find freedom, especially the children, some suspected to be residential school victims.
“They were still children, they suffered. We suffered with them.
“They never went home,” Auger added. “We never knew where they went.
“If we look at it, the whole world suffered,” she concluded.
Auger asked everyone to pray for the children and the Creator to stand with them and help healing.
“All we can do now is recollect.”
Therese Morris was hired to lead the project. The cemetery was first used in 1873 and is still active. Family members continue the Indigenous tradition of digging graves by hand.
However, with the recent use of ground penetrating radar, a committee was formed to right the past and properly map the cemetery. The Grouard Seniors Community Club initiated efforts to map the cemetery and struck the committee.
Morris presented the update with work done to date:

  • working with existing lists and records of burials to mark graves;
  • mapping known grave locations from aerial photography;
  • taking photographs of existing graves and recording information from existing grave markers;
  • using ground penetrating radar technology to identify where there are likely current graves;
  • gathering information from loved ones on the location of family and trying to correlate locations with family names;
  • using the FindaGrave.com website to provide online access to the photographs and information gathered from the grave markers to provide an outlet for people to find their loved ones;
  • scanning funeral cards and uploading them to FindaGrave.com.
    As work continues, the committee identifies empty spaces where new graves can be dug safely.
    The committee partnered with Tarin Resources to do the mapping. Tarin helped them find Glen Larson at FOCUSEDgeo to do the ground penetrating radar. Sirrom Technical Mapping Services is also doing onsite work.
    Financial support has come from Big Lakes County, Tolko Industries and an “I Remember Them” grant from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The committee also recognizes the tireless work from one of its members, Hector Goudreau, in keeping the cemetery tidy and maintained.
    Tolko’s forestry Supt. Chris Valaire attended the update.
    “Tolko is very proud and honoured and privileged to be partner with the local community,” he said.
    “We just want to say thanks on behalf of Tolko,” he added.
    In the spirit of reconciliation, Tolko indeed does its part.
    The committee’s work also runs parallel in efforts to find unmarked graves to residential schools since Grouard was the location of nearby St. Bernard’s Mission.
    The committee also hopes to eventually build a memorial of the names of those buried whose locations cannot be identified. Only then, agree committee members, can the dead truly rest in peace.
The Grouard Cemetery Committee Mapping Project map shows the location of graves identified to date. There are over 1,300 people buried at the site. Much work still needs to be done.

Share this post