Nechi Institute CEO asks to be moved off site of unmarked graves

Nechi CEO Marilyn Buffalo

By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – An addictions treatment training centre in the St. Albert area has asked the federal government for assistance in moving its facility off of unmarked residential school graves, but the feds say it’s provincial jurisdiction. 

Representatives of the Nechi Institute wrote letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Roseanne Archibald to help them move their head office from the grounds of Poundmaker’s Lodge, a private recovery centre built on the site of a former residential school, Rocky Mountain Outlook reported

The Nechi Institute, which was opened in 1974, is an Indigenous education centre that has trained around 15,000 addictions therapists and councillors worldwide. It was located in the Poundmaker’s Lodge building from 1986 to 2020. 

At least 98 Indigenous people were buried on the school’s grounds in unmarked graves after they died from tuberculosis at Charles Camsell Hospital. Some of these graves were located using ground-penetrating radar and testimony from school survivors.

In late-2019 Alberta Infrastructure said it would evict the Nechi institute from the building to make room for 28 more treatment beds, which the government announced it would fund to the tune of $1.4 million. 

According to the institute, this was done without any consultation. 

Since the eviction, the institute has operated out of run-down trailers next to the Poundmaker’s, as well as classroom space it rented in Edmonton. 

Nechi CEO Marilyn Buffalo told Rocky Mountain Outlook the institute learned last July that the trailers the school operated out of were on top of known unmarked graves. 

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a crime scene and we have to get away from it,” she said. 

Because of its forced relocation in 2020, Nechi cannot afford the costs of moving, Buffalo added. 

She said she hopes “some people will grow a heart” and financially support the move in the name of reconciliation. 

In the letters to Trudeau and Archibald, Buffalo wrote that the feds have an obligation under the “medicine chest” clause of Treaty Six to provide physical and mental health programming for Indigenous people suffering from mental health issues. 

In an email to Rocky Mountain Outlook, Maddy Warlow of Indigneous Services Canada said it’s out of federal jurisdiction, since the Poundmaker’s grounds are a provincially-managed site. 

“[Indigenous Services Canada] remains committed to working with its provincial counterparts and First Nation Partners on this issue,” she said. 

Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson’s spokesperson, Adrienne South, told the Outlook the province has provided funds to uncover, reclaim and commemorate unmarked graves. 

“Finding these resting places and respectfully honouring burial sites is a delicate and heart-rending matter,” South said.

She suggested a $150,000 grant from the province should be enough to help the institute move. 

Buffalo, however, said the grant was from a COVID relief fund and has already been spent. Most Edmonton-area buildings require tenants to sign a multi-year lease, so $150,000 isn’t enough money anyway, she added. 

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