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Unravelling a mystery: Efforts underway to identify unknown graves at North West River Cemetery

Colin Hibbs used his artistic talents to create this memorial for the North West River Cemetery.
Colin Hibbs used his artistic talents to create this memorial for the North West River Cemetery. - Contributed
NORTH WEST RIVER, N.L. —

There's a mystery hiding underground at the North West River Cemetery.

“There's a large section in the old part of the cemetery... that is all unknown graves,” said North West River Cemetery Committee member Ken Baikie.

“We don't know how many there are.”

It's believed there are at least 20 graves in the area, he says, but “we think there's more than that.”

“Creating the monument at the North West River cemetery allowed me to further connect with the culture and history of my home town, and to bring awareness to the unknown Aboriginal peoples who are resting there,” said Hibbs.Two memorials now exist to remember those unknown souls. This past summer, Colin Hibbs, a labourer that was hired by the cemetery committee to help with upkeep, decided to do something to recognize the unknown dead.

“Most importantly, I hope that the restoration and beautification of the cemetery acts to inspire the rediscovery of the names of those people who have been forgotten.”

Hibbs' memorial joins 20 white crosses that were put up in the summer of 2012 to recognize the unknown dead who lie in the cemetery grounds. Baikie - who was a labourer that summer - was one of two men who installed those crosses.

With the help of his co-worker, Clarence McLean, the two men looked for indications in the ground and took educated guesses at where the graves could be.

During his summers working at the cemetery, Baikie has come across signs that there used to be temporary markers for some of the graves - such as old, decaying, wooden crosses. One summer, Baikie and another labourer found an old cross that had been displaced and left laying against a fence. They weren't able to determine the exact location of where the cross should be.

“He was buried somewhere over near the ski hill and his cross is misplaced and we don't know where his grave is...he was just a little boy, maybe a few months old,” said Baikie.

Indigenous patients?

The number of unidentified people buried at the cemetery, which opened officially in 1965, and the exact location of their graves are still unknown. But, everyone interviewed for this story say most, if not all, of the unidentified people buried there were indigenous patients from the north coast of Labrador. It's believed these people had been flown in to stay at the International Grenfell Association - formerly the Grenfell Mission, now known as Labrador Grenfell Health - hospital decades ago.

Colin Hibbs stands in front of a memorial he created this past summer for the North West River Cemetery to help remember those buried in unmarked graves at the site.
Colin Hibbs stands in front of a memorial he created this past summer for the North West River Cemetery to help remember those buried in unmarked graves at the site.

No one, however, could explain why no headstones or markers exist for these people.

Ron Watts, who worked for the IGA in North West River for 35 years, says a lot of patients from the north coast who died in care had to be buried in North West River because there was no way to send the bodies back to the coast, especially in the winter months.

 “You wouldn't fly anyone home unless you had room on the aircraft, which wasn't very much...you could only take six people in a Beaver (plane),” said Watts.

Watts doesn't know why headstones or markers aren't in place to show where these former patients are buried.

“I don't have anything to say about that, because that was what was happening... There were no rules or regulations like now.”

Common knowledge

 Wendy Mitchell has lived in North West River all of her life and, in 2010, joined the newly-formed North West River Cemetery Committee. But she'd known a group of unidentified people had been buried at the cemetery many years before then.

Back in 1994, Mitchell's uncle had passed away. While family members were digging the grave, they ended up hitting the corner of a casket.

“When they buried my uncle...they dug his grave and they hit a casket of a child, and that was unmarked,” recalled Mitchell.

Mitchell says the diggers adjusted the location of her uncle's grave in order to leave the unknown child's resting place undisturbed. She also added that it's rare, now, for anyone to come across an unmarked grave while digging into the earth.

About a year ago, Mitchell talked to representatives of the Moravian Church, hoping they might have some old North West River records that could indicate how many of those patients are buried there and, most importantly, their names. The cemetery committee wants to take those names and put them on a permanent memorial.

Biggie Michelin, who also been on the committee since 2010, believes it's important to identify everyone buried in the cemetery and to have their names displayed somewhere.

“I think that everyone, no matter where they're from or where they are...everyone should have a marker somewhere; to be identified, to know that they actually did exist and they were people,” said Michelin.

Records uncovered

Moravian Church representative Beatrice Hope says she's indeed found a book of records that can help identify unknown people who are buried in North West River.  According to Hope, the records - which date back to the 1960s - contains 27 names, including eight infants or children, most of which appear to be from the north coast. Whether or not these records are a complete list of the unknown dead in the North West River cemetery cannot be known. But 27 does closely coincide with the estimate of 20 graves that Ken Baikie and Clarence McLean came up with in 2012.

 It also isn't known if there are IGA records that can help identify anyone. When reached for comment, a Labrador Grenfell Health spokesperson said she couldn't find any information to help with the mystery.

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