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Where searches for remains are happening at former residential school sites


Earlier this week, Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan began its search for unmarked graves around the former Qu'Appelle Industrial Residential School.

The search comes months after the country was rocked by the news out of British Columbia in the spring when the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that 215 unmarked graves had been found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Although that figure was later revised to 200, hundreds more unmarked graves have been identified across the country in the months since, with dozens of additional searches being planned or currently ongoing.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were mostly forced from their families to attend the boarding schools from the late 1800s to 1996, with the goal replacing Indigenous languages and culture with English and Christian beliefs.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its final report on the residential school system in 2015, says at least one in every 50 students died, with 4,100 having officially died, although the number is believed to be much higher.

To date, more than 1,800 confirmed or suspected unmarked graves have been identified.

Here are the locations where previous searches for unmarked graves have taken place, most of which resulted in discoveries:

Sacred Heart (Northwest Territories)

A monument currently exists to recognize the roughly 300 people -- 161 of whom are Indigenous children -- buried near the former Sacred Heart school in Fort Providence, N.W.T.

The first residential school in the North, the Catholic-run institution opened in 1867 and operated between 1906 and 1960, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg reports. Throughout most of its history, between 65 and 75 students were enrolled at the school, although enrolment stood at around 100 in the 1950s.

Ground-penetrating radar was used in the 1990s to locate the cemetery. The same technology was used in Kamloops and has since been adopted by other communities conducting searches for unmarked graves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted that a community member named Albert Lafferty initiated research into the cemetery in 1992 and concluded that one, located close to the school, had been in use until 1929 when it was abandoned to be used as a potato field.

Williams Lake (British Columbia)

After a recent geological survey, Williams Lake First Nation says it has discovered 93 potential burial sites on the grounds of a former residential school. St. Joseph's Mission Residential School operated near Williams Lake, located in British Columbia’s interior, between 1886 and 1981.

The findings at the site are considered preliminary, as only 14 out of 470 hectares of the grounds have been searched using ground-penetrating radar. Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said at a press conference Tuesday that there is evidence that some children’s bodies were disposed of in lakes, rivers and the school’s incinerator.

“For those children there will be no headstone, no unmarked grave, no small fragment of bone to be forensically analyzed,” Sellars said. “For those families there will be no closure."

The chief also said there were contemporaneous reports for decades of children dying or disappearing from St. Joseph's Mission, but that those reports were largely ignored.

The Williams Lake facility, also known as the Cariboo school, was investigated as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on missing children. Several reports indicated that the school’s staff used harsh and abusive discipline on children. In 1902, Principal Henry Boening used a whip or quirt to punish boys, while girls would be put on bread-and-water diets. Children at St. Joseph's Mission would also be locked in a room for up to 12 days as a form of punishment.

St. Joseph's Mission is reported to have had issues with truancy and runaway children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report found that in February 1902, nine boys ran away from the facility. Eight were later located and brought back, but the ninth child, eight-year-old Duncan Sticks, was later found dead by a local man. According to the report, “in the wake of the tragedy, Indian Affairs issued no policy guidelines to the principal of the Williams Lake school, let alone to all principals, as to what steps should be taken when students ran away.”

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reports that in 1920, nine boys ate poisonous water hemlock in what parents believed to be a response to the harsh discipline they faced. One of the boys died as a result, but according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings, no inquiry was ever made into the death of that child.

In the 1980s and 1990s, two former staff members pleaded guilty to charges of sexually abusing children at the facility in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Cranbrook (British Columbia)

In June, the Lower Kootenay Band released a statement saying the remains of 182 children had been discovered in unmarked graves close to the former St. Eugene's Mission School near Cranbrook, B.C.

The statement said the Aq'am community conducted the search in 2020 and used ground-penetrating radar to find the remains near the former residential school. About 100 band members attended the school.

The Catholic-run Kootenay or St. Eugene's residential school opened in 1890 just north of Cranbrook, B.C., before it was replaced by an industrial school in 1912. Along with reports of poor school attendance and runaways, the school was impacted by recurring outbreaks of influenza, mumps, measles, chicken pox and tuberculosis. The federal government took over operation in 1969 and closed it the following year in 1970.

The school was transformed into a hotel resort and cultural centre, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported, with a school cemetery visible next to the fairways of a golf course.

Kamloops (British Columbia)

In May, the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that 215 unmarked graves -- later revised to 200 -- had been found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

It was the largest in the Indian Affairs residential school system, with enrolment peaking at 500 in the early 1950s.

The school opened, under Catholic administration, in 1890 and was partially destroyed in a fire in 1924.

The federal government took over in 1969 and operated it as a residence for students attending local day schools until 1978. The facility was later transformed into a cultural centre.

Kuper Island (British Columbia)

In July, more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves were confirmed on Penelakut Island, formerly Kuper Island, a statement from Penelakut Tribe Chief Joan Brown at the time said.

The Catholic-run Kuper Island School near Chemainus on Vancouver Island opened in 1889 and operated between 1890 and 1975.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reported that students set fire to the school in 1895 when holidays were cancelled. A survey that year also showed that 107 of 264 students had died.

In 1959, two sisters drowned while trying to escape and another died by suicide in 1966. The federal government took over the school in 1969 and closed it in 1975.

Two decades later, a former employee pleaded guilty in 1995 to three charges of indecent assault and gross indecency.

St. Joseph's (Alberta)

To date, 34 children found buried near the former Dunbow Industrial School, south of Calgary, have been named, with dozens of other bodies still missing.

Also known as St. Joseph's, the Catholic Dunbow Industrial School was one of the first of three industrial schools established by the Canadian government and churches.

The school was built in 1884, northeast of Okotoks, where the Highwood River flows into the Bow River. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation notes that in 1918, the then principal and three students died of influenza. The school closed in 1922, with an enrolment at the time of only 26 students.

In 2001, water erosion of the banks of the Bow-Highwood River exposed the remains of former students, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported.

Thirty-four bodies were exhumed and reburied several hundred metres away from the river. Today, a rock monument and stone cairn commemorate the site.

Battleford (Saskatchewan)

The Battleford school in Saskatchewan was Canada's first industrial residential school.

The Anglican-run school opened in 1883 but closed in 1885 during the Northwest Resistance and at one point was occupied by troops.

An inspection done in 1890 found the school had no fire protection and a poor sanitation system. The school closed in 1914 following a period of low productivity and lack of qualified teachers.

Following its closure, a principal informed the federal Indian Affairs department that a school cemetery contained the bodies of between 70 and 80 people, most former students.

During the summer of 1974, archeology students and staff from the University of Saskatchewan excavated 72 graves at the school. A cairn was erected at the school's cemetery in 1975.

Marieval (Saskatchewan)

In June, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced it had found an estimated 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School -- marking the largest discovery so far of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

The First Nation began radar scanning of the school grounds and surrounding area that month.

The discovery is not considered a mass grave, but rather unmarked graves where headstones have been removed. There also is a 10 to 15 per cent margin of error with the ground-penetrating radar, and it cannot be confirmed that all of the graves belong to children. As of September, names have been put to about 300 individuals.

Built in 1899 by Catholic missionaries in the Qu'Appelle Valley, the school was funded by the federal government beginning in 1901 before it took over in 1969. The school was later turned over to Cowessess before it closed in 1997.

It was demolished and replaced with a day school, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report states.

The Archdiocese of Regina gave Cowessess First Nation $70,000 in 2019 to help restore the gravesite.

Don Bolen, the archbishop of Regina, has said previously that the gravesites are unmarked in part due to an argument between a priest at the school and a local First Nation chief in the 1960s.

Muscowequan (Saskatchewan)

Earlier in the summer, the Muskowekwan First Nation laid 35 pairs of children's moccasins and shoes to honour the unmarked gravesite located at the former Muscowequan residential school.

The last residential school in Saskatchewan to close its doors, Muscowequan was located on Muskowekwan First Nation.

The Catholic day school was enlarged in 1886 to take in boarding students. Prior to the federal government taking over in 1969, reports from the 1920s show the building was not suitable and offered students an inadequate diet.

The Muskowekwan Education Centre managed the school from 1981 before it closed in 1997.

In 2018 and 2019, the First Nation worked with the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Alberta to use ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves.

That, along with water line construction in the 1990s, identified at least 35 graves.

Regina Indian Industrial School (Saskatchewan)

Back in September, 38 orange markers were donated by Pasqua First Nation to the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association to identify the graves located in the former school's cemetery.

Two searches done at the former industrial school found 32 in 2012 and another six in 2014.

The school opened in 1890 but closed in 1910 due to poor conditions and low enrolment.

Brandon (Manitoba)

An investigation by Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba has identified 104 potential graves at three cemeteries connected to the former Brandon residential school.

One of the cemeteries is on a campground located near the Assiniboine River, which runs through Brandon. It is believed that 54 children who attended the nearby, but now demolished residential school, are buried there in unmarked graves.

Investigations into the cemeteries and unmarked graves have been taking place since 2012.

Run by the Methodist, United and Catholic churches, the school was in operation between 1895 and 1972. It was subject to complaints of harsh discipline and poor food, with many students running away. From 1967 up until its closure, the school operated as a residence for local day school students.

Shubenacadie (Nova Scotia)

In August, a team of Nova Scotia researchers confirmed they were unable to find any unmarked graves of students at the former Shubenacadie residential school north of Halifax.

The Sipekne'katik First Nation said the investigation involved the use of ground-penetrating radar and aerial laser scanning. The search also involved scans of surrounding farmland.

The only residential school established in the Maritimes, the Catholic-run school ran from 1929 to 1967.

Between that time, the school became the subject of a federal inquiry in 1934 over the beating of 19 boys. A judge ultimately said the boys got what they deserved.


If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.


With files from Maggie Parkhill. Top Stories

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