Jonny Williams (Xotxwes), of the Sto:lo Nation, holds eagle feathers as he helps guide his late ancestors from an unmarked, undocumented burial site to a canoe so they can travel home, outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been discovered buried near the former school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Jonny Williams (Xotxwes), of the Sto:lo Nation, holds eagle feathers as he helps guide his late ancestors from an unmarked, undocumented burial site to a canoe so they can travel home, outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been discovered buried near the former school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

‘Delicate, sensitive process:’ Expert talks on searching for burial sites with radar

Alberta anthropologist says projects have to be community-led and culturally sensitive

Searching for unmarked burial sites is a painstaking process that not all Indigenous communities could be immediately ready for after the remains of more than 200 children were found at a former residential school in British Columbia, says an anthropologist who has done similar projects on the Prairies.

“Just a note of caution – we can’t just show up with our equipment and run surveys tomorrow,” says Kisha Supernant, an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“This is a delicate, sensitive process that requires such care. And communities must decide what would be the right way forward.”

Supernant, who is also Métis and a descendant of the Papaschase First Nation, says residential schools often had children from many different Nations attend, so communities must also come together to ensure any search work done is in keeping with cultural practices.

Last week, the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that the remains of 215 children had been found buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Chief Rosanne Casimir said the children, some as young as three, were students at the school, which was once the largest in Canada’s residential school system.

Kamloops Indian Residental School operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over operation from the Catholic Church to operate it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

Casimir said technology such as ground-penetrating radar allowed for a true accounting of the missing children and will hopefully bring some peace and closure to those lives lost.

Supernant uses the same technology to help Indigenous communities survey burial grounds. She and her team have worked with the Enoch Cree and Papaschase First Nations in the Edmonton area.

Ground-penetrating radar consists of a small antenna shaped as a box, which is dragged along the surface of the ground while sending a signal into the soil, she says. If there is a difference between the surrounding soil and a particular location, it changes the signal.

“In the case of looking for unmarked graves and burial locations, what this piece of equipment is able to show are areas that have been disturbed,” Supernant explains.

“When you dig a grave, the soil changes — the composition changes, the density can change — and the ground-penetrating radar can actually pick up that change.”

Her team pulls the equipment over the ground in a grid of 25-centimetre intervals, using frequencies best suited to detect changes two to three metres deep.

She worked on one project involving a residential school in 2018 in Saskatchewan. She and her team helped find remains of students of the Muscowequan Indian Residential School located near Lestock.

Supernant says she expected to get more requests after that project, but acknowledges that many Indigenous communities have a lot of pressing needs, such as mental health supports, housing and clean drinking water.

“Many communities don’t have access to the resources and the funding,” Supernant says. “And while, of course, this is very important, it’s also very difficult work and needs to be properly resourced.”

But Supernant says she expects to get more calls after the discovery in Kamloops, which has received attention countrywide.

In Nova Scotia, two groups that represent the province’s Mi’kmaq population issued a joint statement Monday saying ground-penetrating radar has been used at the former site of the Shubenacadie residential school, but no graves or human remains have been found.

The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs said archaeological investigations continue at the site north of Halifax

“With so many schools across the country, we are very aware that this is not an isolated incident,” the statement said.

The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative said it has been working for several years with Dorene Bernard, a survivor of the school and a respected elder in the community.

The group also said is looking at other possible locations to search with radar, including a nearby lake. “We all want to ensure that the site is fully investigated as this work is extremely important to our people.”

Supernant says while the discovery in Kamloops is devastating, she is not surprised.

“I know every school had a graveyard of some kind and we can only expect to see more stories like this coming out. And communities really need to be supporting in trying to find their relatives.”

Most importantly, Supernant says, the projects have to be community-led and culturally sensitive.

“There has to be space for ceremony, because this is very sacred,” she says.

“This involved these ancestors, these children, whose spirits often haven’t been cared for in the ways their relatives need them to be cared for.”

—Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Devastation over discovery at Kamloops residential school felt deeply throughout Shuswap

RELATED: B.C. teacher says students could be triggered by residential school discovery

residential schools

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta launches COVID vaccine lottery with million-dollar prizes to encourage uptake

The premier says the lottery will offer three prizes worth $1 million a piece, as well as other prizes

Some examples of ‘kindness’ rocks that were painted by members of the Boys and Girls Club in Rimbey. photo submitted
The ‘kindness rock snake’ continues to take shape in Rimbey

Residents are asked to contribute a ‘kindness rock’ to a project near the Blindman Youth Action Building

The City of Red Deer sits at 249 active cases of the virus, after hitting a peak of 565 active cases on Feb. 22. (Black Press file image)
Red Deer down to 119 active COVID-19 cases

Province identifies 179 new cases Saturday

Member Terry Parsons’ custom built track vehicle.
Forestburg’s Area 53 Racetrack gears up for action-packed season

Site will also host a portion of the ‘Miles of Mayhem’ event in July

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Airport ground crew offload a plane carrying just under 300,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine which is developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
1st batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t be released in Canada over quality concerns

The vaccines were quarantined in April before they were distributed to provinces

Most Read