Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
February 25, 2001
Church history on the line
Oblates, others fear Epcor expansion will overturn burial ground, wreck historic building
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — It's not easy finding the names of dead people from 140 years ago. Records for such things weren't kept on structured databases as they are today.
But it was important for Oblate Father Camille Piche to translate the records from the Oblates' registry dating back as far as he could find. It was a matter of historic importance.
What many Edmontonians know as Epcor's plan to expand its Rossdale plant is a matter of endangered history - and the possible disruption of an old burial ground - to folks like Piche.
"The connection we have to (the Epcor project) is the cemetery and the actions of the Catholic priests who lived in that area . . . and the people whom they baptized, married or buried," Piche said.
"Where the expansion of Epcor is going to take place is where the cemetery is - that's the bone of contention."
At least, that's Piche's contention. Epcor, and others, believe the expansion will not affect the burial ground, which they feel certain lies outside the electrical utility's property.
In the period between 1859 and 1870, the Oblates' records show 18 people were buried at the cemetery just outside Fort Edmonton, many of them by Father Albert Lacombe. Piche suspects the cemetery was a common burial ground, not necessarily a Catholic one, which was not well maintained and eventually abandoned.
The history of the fort and the nearby cemetery is not only that of the European inhabitants who lived there, but also of aboriginal people, the Metis and the Oblate missionaries.
"We need to be in touch with our history," Piche said. "We're living in a phase where people are forgetting what happened 10 years ago. How many people in Edmonton know the history of Fort Edmonton or where it was?"
But the talk of building over burial grounds and an historic site worries Piche. "They're reducing our history to garbage. For the people whose loved ones are buried there, this is a powerful (event)."
Liliane Coutu Maisonneuve has no family buried in the Fort Edmonton cemetery, but her concern for the site runs deep. Her great-great-great-grandmother, Marie-Anne Gaboury-Lagimodiere was the first white woman to come west and live at the fort.
Lagimodiere is well known for being the wife of the famous voyageur Jean-Baptiste Lagimodiere and grandmother of Louis Riel.
Strewn in Maisonneuve's house are books and pictures of her historic family. When she heard of Epcor's expansion plan and the possibility that it would affect the fort's old cemetery, she decided to give the executives at Epcor and the people of Edmonton a history lesson.
For the past year, her dining room table has played host to newspaper clippings and copies of history books. She's attended meetings and Alberta Energy and Utilities Board hearings. If she wanted, Maisonneuve could write a novel on the whole incident.
One part of the story would start in 1999 when Epcor announced its $115 million project to expand its Rossdale plant by demolishing the historic, but now empty, Maxwell Denwar building, which once housed three turbines. That demolition would make way for the new 170-megawatt gas turbine. The original plan has been altered to demolish only part of the building and leave the remainder as a possible interpretive site.
But Maisonneuve believes the building should be left untouched.
Her story begins more than 100 years ago when Fort Edmonton was a vibrant trading post with an eclectic mix of Europeans, French Canadians, First Nations and Metis communities.
"I know that many of the French Canadians have come here and worked here, lived here and that history has been ignored," she said.
In the past, corpses have been found in the Rossdale area. Recent digs on the Epcor property have uncovered several signs of human settlement there.
Maissoneuve's brother Philip Coutu and Duane Good Striker of the Blackfoot Nation First Thunder Society have opposed the plant's expansion since day one, claiming about 200 bodies are buried on the property.
No one disputes the fact that a cemetery was in the vicinity. The controversy is over where that cemetery was. Epcor argues the boundaries of the cemetery lie outside its fences.
"The best evidence we have of the cemetery is that it's outside our property; it may lie under the road, west under Rossdale Road," said Lynn Hutchings-Mah, Epcor spokesperson. "The maps we have show the cemetery west of our boundary. It may just come under the roadway, it doesn't show that it's physically on our site."
Hutchings-Mah said that a dig in 1967 uncovered remains in the trenchlands outside the plant's boundaries.
Epcor also has support from some local First Nations people. In December, 20 Blackfoot, including 12 elders, examined findings of the 1967 dig. They also visited viewed archeological studies and the surveyed location of the cemetery. They were confident human remains will not be found in the old fort site.
The elders also approved Epcor's studies to protect the old cemetery in a commemorative way, which will include an interpretive centre. They agreed it would not disturb any native burial ground.
But that doesn't put Maisonneuve's mind at ease. She knows that even if the old fort cemetery is not right underneath the site of Epcor's expansion, it is nearby.
In her final written statement to the AEUB, Maisonneuve recommended that the Maxwell Denwar building become an interpretive centre and that there be a commemorative park with a monument listing the names of those buried in the Fort Edmonton cemetery.
"It comes down to what is progress and to preserving history," Maisonneuve said. "This city has a history of tearing down historic buildings."
The AEUB hearings concluded Jan. 19. A decision is expected in a few months.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.