‘We just didn’t know where it was’

How a hand-drawn map, a family history, community members, a local Métis leader, and a team of archeologists and researchers helped uncover a 200-year-old story buried in the Fort-a-la-Corne forest

Community members place crosses in presumed grave sites at Nepowewin L to R: Sid Demerais, Ken Demerais, Carla Hope, Wilfred Bear, Maria Mampe (submitted photo)

Carla Hope knew growing up she was related to a significant historical figure.

Her great-great-great-grandfather is Rev. Henry Budd, the first Indigenous man in Canada to be ordained as a priest in the Anglican church.

Hope’s grandmother — Budd’s great-granddaughter — had a portrait of him hung up in her living room over her chair.

She talked about Budd, Hope recalls, and going to a service with family at Holy Trinity Church in Prince Albert.

“He’s very much alive even though this was almost 200 years ago,” Hope said.

Budd was born sometime around 1820. Keith Hyde, a professor at University College of the North in Manitoba, grew up in The Pas and knew about Budd before he began delving into Budd’s journals and starting to study his life. 

Budd worked as an Anglican missionary for 35 years in The Pas – Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was ordained in the early 1850s. From his journals, it is noted that Budd traveled to Saskatchewan in 1851 to set up a mission.

“The fort is situated on a fine level ground having a high or second bank all around. The banks are very high but not steep in many places,” Budd wrote in his journal.

Over the next couple of years Budd brought his family and started to build up the mission.

Budd died in 1875 and is buried at The Pas.  There, they still hold an annual service in his honour.

Hope knew Budd had established the church at the original Fort-a-la-Corne area, but she wasn’t sure where it was exactly. 

Fort-a-la-corne has been designated as a national historic site in Canada. It was active between 1753 to 1932, according to government records. The area was a busy fur trading centre, run by both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

Hope has been fascinated with genealogy her whole life. Back when she was in university she found her great-great-great-grandfather’s journal in the library. It was put together by a student, Katherine Pettipas, as a part of her thesis and included excerpts of Budd’s journal.

The thesis mentioned a mission and that Budd’s son and wife were buried there.

“That sparked my curiosity and I wanted to know more,” Hope said of her discovery, nearly 40 years ago.

She’s since retired and has more time to pursue her family’s genealogy.

It wasn’t until last year though that Hope, going through local history books, found a hand-drawn map of the mission’s location.

Dave Rondeau, president of Métis Local 66 Crutwell, spends his time using rough coordinates and historical records to locate old forts and trading posts. It’s a process, he said, that’s more difficult than it seems.

With present day exploration, he says “we can easily lose a site like this if we don’t know exactly where it is.” 

Hope knew Rondeau was mapping the area. She had been speaking with him about her efforts to locate the mission and cemetery site.

She contacted him when she found the map.

It pointed her to a patch of land across the river from James Smith Cree Nation, about 64 km east of Prince Albert on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River.

It’s known by descendants and historians as Nepowewin or Budd Mission. The name ‘Nepowewin’ comes from a Cree word meaning ‘a good look out’, Rondeau said. 

“She just wanted to let me know that she was actually a direct descendant of Rev. Budd and those were her folks in that cemetery,” Rondeau said. “We had no idea where it was – none – we went in there and it’s solid bush. You can’t see two feet in front of your face.”

Rondeau journeyed to the site with friend and archeologist, Butch Amundson. The two men were able to find the mission using coordinates from David Meyer, a University of Saskatchewan (USask) anthropologist who visited the site in the 1980s. Hope also helped, using the hand-drawn map to refer the men to where Nepowewin may have been.

Because the original buildings no longer exist, Rondeau and Amundson were looking for signs left behind, including cellar depressions in the ground.

The group wasn’t just challenged by the thick bush. They also had to contend with Rio Tinto’s nearby mining activity. The company has an exploratory lease nearby and is working towards establishing a diamond mine.

Rondeau estimates that Rio Tinto has come withing 2.5 to 3 km from the site.

“A piece of equipment could erase that site in an hour,” Rondeau said. 

He contacted the mining staff, who told him if there was an issue or potential conflict, they would stay out of the area. Rondeau says Rio Tinto has “been nothing but gracious and forthcoming.”

They’ve since agreed to contribute $50,000 to the group’s efforts. 

Rondeau and his sons spent nearly a month in September 2020 clearing out the bush around the presumed mission. 

“It was just a rag-tag little group of Métis boys that just went out there and got the job done. Those boys were so passionate about what they were doing and so respectful at the site,” Rondeau said. 

Crew at Nepowewin/Budd Mission works on the site (Submitted photo)

The site needed to be clear for an important reason — students and professors from the USask archeology department agreed to come out and use their equipment to try and locate the graves, and in turn, the cemetery. 

Amundson and other archeologists volunteered their time and company’s equipment to the project as well. 

For the group to be able to cover as much area as they could efficiently, the land needed to be clear of bush.

Terence Clark, assistant professor at USask, was happy to come out and volunteer his time. Another professor, Glenn Stuart, as well as several grad students, also volunteered.

The USask team*, along with Amundson and fellow archeologist Maria Mampe, pooled their expertise and resources together to complete a scan of the area with non-invasive technology. 

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to see if there were any disturbances beneath the surface. 

Carla Hope uses GPR technology with the help of USask student Olenka Kawchuk (Submitted photo)

Clark has used the technique before to find burials in other communities and at residential school grounds. 

“If you go over the surface you’re not actually finding the coffin or the body, but you are finding the hole that was dug,” Clark explained. 

Amundson and his team used a high resolution Global Positioning System (GPS) to do a base map of the site and its features. They also brought electromagnetic conductivity equipment known as EM38. 

The EM38 is a metre-long and resembles a carpenter’s level. A “tiny electrical current” is sent into the ground and measures how fast the current goes over the length of a metre. The current is nine volts and won’t even kill worms, Amundson said. The current is picked up by a receiver at the front while a GPS is running at the same time, measuring and recording the length of time it takes for the current to pass through. 

“If there’s anything that makes the electricity go faster it’s probably metal or water, and if there’s something that makes the electricity go slower it’s probably a void, something that’s less compact than the surrounding ground,” Amundson explained.

From this tool, archeologists are able to study if there are anomalies in the ground. If the anomalies show up as patterns, it can indicate that the ground has been disturbed by people and that there may be artifacts or other objects buried beneath the surface. 

Amundson explained by using these non-invasive techniques and tools, the group was able to find potential grave sites without disturbing any ground.

“The last thing in the world an archaeologist would ever want to do is disturb a cemetery,” Amundson said. “This is our way of being able to be reasonably confident that we know where graves are without ever having to disturb the ground.” 

What they found

After a weekend of camping across the river, and canoeing up to the site each day, the study resulted in some very interesting finds. 

Rondeau estimates that about 60 cellar depressions were found. Clark explained that he believes half of these would have been used for actual buildings, where the other half would be used to make and mix clay to line the walls of houses. 

Nonetheless, records show that there were only nine to 12 buildings at the site, so even 30 potential building depressions is more than the group expected to find. 

While the group is still processing their data and findings nearly four months after the initial study, Clark believes they found between 20 to 30 burials. 

A record of people interred in the cemetery lists many children. Clark said those burials are often smaller and harder to find. 

Community members started placing crosses in presumed grave sites. Hope, who has many ancestors buried in the cemetery, said that she went from excitement of finding and seeing the site for the first time, to emotions of sadness and grief. 

“That was a really sad day actually realizing how many children are out there,” Hope said. 

According to burial records, more than half of the people buried in the cemetery were children under the age of 12. 

One mystery that puzzled the group is that Budd wrote in his journal that there was a scarlet fever outbreak at the mission. Yet there are no burials recorded for that year. 

Clark explained this might mean there are more burials at the site that weren’t recorded. 

Hyde, who’s combed through many of Budd’s journals, doesn’t have a definitive answer either, but did offer an educated guess. 

The mission wasn’t very large and some groups passed through it, including the Plains Cree who followed the bison migrating south in the fall. Hyde estimates that unless people were severely sick, they would have continued on with their families. 

For those who may have stayed, Budd wrote in his journals that some people did not convert to Christianity during their time at the mission and instead followed their traditional Cree spirituality. 

“Presumably, they would have had no interest in being buried by a Christian minister in the church yard,” Hyde explained. “I’m guessing they would have just followed their own traditional burial practices with those members who had gotten sick and died.”

One significant discovery at the site is believed to be a vault separate from the cemetery and beneath what is believed to be the former site of the school chapel. 

In his journal, Budd writes about his son Henry Jr.: “he is buried in a vault strong walled in the school chapel.” A month later, Budd’s wife Betsy was also laid to rest and he wrote “the vault was steep and strongly walled.”

It appears that while three of Budd’s daughters were buried in the cemetery, his wife and oldest son were laid to rest separately.

As for why they were buried separate from the graveyard, Hyde believes that Budd loved all his children, but the loss of his oldest son was “particularly devastating.”

Henry Jr. was following in his father’s footsteps and had been ordained. He was sent to London and trained at the Anglican Training Centre in Islington. Hyde believes Henry Jr. was going to take over the mission from his father. 

“His wife was also a very essential partner in raising the family and just helping him to accomplish everything he did,” Hyde said. “He had tremendous love for them.”

Hyde also speculates that this was a common practice. He referenced another priest, Rev. James Hunter, who buried his wife and young infant in a vault beneath an old church in The Pas.

Hunter was a mentor to Budd before he was sent to Nepowewin. Hyde wonders if Budd followed his mentor’s example.

Hyde can only speculate. He has not found any explanation about this from Budd in his journals.  

After the group found what they believe to be Henry Jr. and Betsy’s grave site, they marked the graves. For Hope, Budd’s direct descendant, it was “very touching.” 


Maria Mampe is a colleague of Amundson, and contributed her time and resources to the project. Her family hails from Muskoday First Nation, and her great-great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Turner, was a lifelong friend of Budd and lived with his family at Nepowewin.

According to Mampe, genealogy is really important to Métis and First Nations people, so she’s been aware of her heritage her entire life. She’s glad the site is getting attention and hopes it results in preservation and protection. 

Mampe has three ancestors buried at the Nepowewin cemetery and believes the community involvement has been incredible. 

“A lot of the times First Nations and Métis Indigenous people haven’t had a seat at the table when it comes to archeology,” Mampe explained. “This is a great project that has a lot of community support and is bringing a lot of people in to get involved.” 

Amundson echoes that statement. 

He said archeology is simply a tool here. 

It’s the descendants of the people of Nepowewin “calling the shots,” Amundson explained. 

“We’re not curious in a scientific way about this site. We’re using our skillset as archeologists to do exactly what (Mampe) said — preserve and protect.”

Importance of giving back 

As a USask professor and archeologist, Clark has been working with Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. He believes the academic community, including archeologists, can and should give back to Indigenous communities to advance reconciliation.

Clark explained that over the years, archeologists dug up sites that belong to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities and have taken items to showcase at museums, without giving a lot in return. 

“That’s not acceptable anymore,” Clark said.

Finding grave sites at Nepowewin was much different, Clark said, than some of his previous work with communities involving searching for grave sites at residential schools.

“With residential schools it’s all unmarked graves and you don’t know how people are dying or how their lives are being remembered,” Clark said. “(At Nepowewin) you know (they had) funerals and their families are there. At least there’s a bit more closure, I think to these burials, than other ones I’ve worked on. “

It’s hard to see where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from’

Andrew Dreaver hangs up the Métis flag at Nepowewin/Budd Mission (Submitted photo)

Crutwell’s Rondeau, who spends his time studying and researching old fort sites, said Nepowewin and the mission were in operation “at such a tumultuous time for Métis people.” He added that many Métis people took refuge out there. 

Rondeau explained the many reasons why it’s important for the community to complete this type of study. 

One of those reasons is to rewrite history with an eye for accuracy.

“It’s all in an effort to rediscover our own history. Accuracy — that’s all we want,” Rondeau said. 

Rondeau said that some sources state that Nepowewin is now known as Nipawin, and operated in the same area. That’s not accurate, he said, as the two locations are almost 80 km apart.

Another significant part of this study is to involve the youth, especially Métis youth. 

“It’s hard to see where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from,” Rondeau said. 

The site continues to be used for education. During the initial study, Mampe brought her uncle, Wilfred Bear, to visit the site. Bear is an elder from Muskoday First Nation.

“He was just amazed and enthralled with the whole experience. He jumped in a boat and he climbed up that river bank and he loved every minute of it,” Mampe said. 

Bear is also a Mushum at Muskoday School and has been working with students on a genealogy project. 

“This visit for him was really helpful in sort of bringing your history to life and he’s going to take that experience and share it with the children of the school,” Mampe explained. 

Mampe says her uncle was really transformed by visiting the land his ancestors once inhabited. 

As an ancestor, Hope believes it’s important for youth to realize what their ancestors have contributed to the area.

Documenting the site may also prevent it from being destroyed. If the region were ever hit by a forest fire, for example, and firefighters had to push a water line through the ground, it could disturb the site, Rondeau said.

Mampe and Amundson plan to work with the provincial Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport. Amundson explained although the site already has some protection as it’s designated as a historic site, the updated information and results from the study will provide added layers of protection. 

Some sites, such as those that include medicine wheels and human burials, can receive a greater “buffer” around them.

“That’s a no go zone unless you get complete buy-in from everybody who’s affected. There’s just no way you can go anywhere near this site,” Amundson explained. 

Amundson further explained that through The Heritage Property Act, anyone wanting to do any kind of work in the area will need to make sure what they’re doing won’t threaten the site.

Amundson said they could also create a reconstruction of what the site looked like in the past by using three-dimensional photos taken at the site and building virtual models. As the site is difficult to access, the virtual model would help elders and others to see what the site looks like then and now.

Before heading to and working at the site, the group had to get permission from a group of elders who are descendants of the people buried at the cemetery. 

Lisa Demerais, Hope’s aunt, is one of those elders. Speaking to the Herald, Demerais said she started learning more about Nepowewin and Budd as she got older and started looking into her family’s genealogy. 

“I didn’t know he was that well noted,” she said.

Demerais was able to visit the site with her siblings last fall and called the experience “surreal.” 

“When I got there, I thought it was stepping into history, because the area was all cleared out and they had markers where there were graves,” Demerais said. 

“There was life there. It was an area that was a well functioning place. It had people, they had a lifestyle there, just a community built up by Henry Budd. (It was a) proud moment to be there knowing that they existed and they were there,” Demerais said. 

Demerais believes it’s important for this study to be completed so the site and its rich history isn’t forgotten.

She added that her ancestors went through difficult times while trying to build the mission up while dealing with the loss of community and family members. 

“It was just his faith in God that got him through it. He was an honoured man and should be,” Demerais said.  

Future plans for Nepowewin

The first priority for community members was to clear the site and locate the cemetery before moving forward with any sort of future plans.

This study is far from complete. 

Olenka Kawchuk is a masters student at USask’s Archeology department. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, she was planning on doing her masters project on unmarked graves at residential schools using the same technology that was used at Nepowewin. 

She said she knew it was important to include the voices of residential school survivors and families and realized this wouldn’t be possible with public health measures and travel restrictions. 

After being approached by professor Clark, her supervisor, about the Nepowewin study, Kawchuk decided to complete her masters project on it instead. 

“The community really wanted it to happen and were enthusiastic about it and so that’s what really drew me to it,” Kawchuk said. 

Kawchuk has also been studying Budd’s journals and going through data collected from the study. 

She hopes to complete her project in the spring and present her findings to the community and ancestors. 

Hope said the community will need to get the elders consent before doing anything else at Nepowewin, such as erecting a memorial plaque designating the cemetery and mission site. 

She has received funding from Sask Lotteries for Sport, Culture, and Recreation to help finance continued exploration this summer.

Hope wants to make sure that the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society is aware of the cemetery so people working on their genealogy can find out where their ancestors are buried. She said she may need the elders consent for this too. 

Although she can’t speak for all the elders, Demerais said she would definitely like to see the site remembered with a plaque and an area where people can go to visit and pay their respects. 

“Those people mattered,” Demerais said.

“They lived and died there. It’s a place to be honoured and remembered.”

Carla Hope’s daughter, Lauren Hope, plays the fiddle at the site (Submitted)