‘We hope we don’t find anything’: Alberta First Nation begins ground-penetrating radar survey

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

As Mike Beaver gazes toward the shore of North Wabasca Lake in northern Alberta, his heart sinks.

Beaver, a Bigstone Cree Nation elder, is also a residential school survivor who was forced to attend the Desmarais residential school from 1949 to 1958.

On Tuesday, the First Nation about 320 kilometers north of Edmonton began a week-long ground-penetrating radar survey after interviews with survivors indicated potential burials of school children.

Beaver, who held ceremonies Tuesday before and after the search began, said in an interview that the community hopes no graves will be found.

“We’re hoping we don’t find anything,” Beaver said.

“We are looking for the truth…we don’t live in the past, but we have to discover it.”

Kisha Supernant is Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. (Omayra Issa/CBC)

Survey conducted by the institute at the U of A

Two boarding schools operated in the Wabasca-Desmarais area: St. John’s Boarding School and Desmarais (St. Martins) Boarding School.

Desmarais was operated by the Roman Catholic Church and was open from 1902 to 1973.

St. John’s was run by the Church of England from 1902 to 1966.

The survey is being conducted by the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta.

The institute will first investigate the St. Martin’s area with plans to extend the investigation to St. John’s.

Chief Silas Yellowknee said the community wanted to conduct their own search after the Kapawe’no First Nation announced that 169 potential graves had been found at the site of a former residential school, Grouard Mission, about 370 kilometers northeast. west of Edmonton. (Submitted by Silas Yellowknee)

Kisha Supernant, director of the institute and a member of the investigating team, said the institute was approached by the First Nation last year.

“We listened to survivors and elders talk about the various areas that were of concern,” Supernant said. “Once we had a chance to talk, we started to come up with a plan on how to approach an investigation.”

Over the past year, the institute has carried out preliminary work such as collecting historical aerial photos and geographic information. The team also brought equipment to the area, including ground penetrating radar.

Supernant said the ground-penetrating radar didn’t perform equally well in all environments.

“There are specific considerations about soil types and land disturbance types and things that have happened,” she said.

The GPR device includes a transmitting antenna that sends high frequency electromagnetic waves into the ground that will bounce back to the receiver at anything different from the middle of the ground. (Courtesy of Geoscan)

The inquest will likely wrap up next Thursday, Supernant said.

“There was a root cellar area called ‘potato hill’ and a few other areas near the school grounds that they [survivors] wanted to investigate.”

Other areas include area cemeteries.

“One thing we know of St. Martin’s is that in this earlier cemetery there was [deceased] priests and nuns who have been moved from this location to the new location,” Supernant said.

“But as far as we know, none of the children who might have been there have been moved and we don’t know exactly where that graveyard is today, so we’re trying to find it.”

The results will require several months of analysis and interpretation before being submitted to Bigstone Cree Nation to determine next steps.

Respect the wishes of elders

Chief Silas Yellowknee said the community wanted to conduct their own search after the Kapawe’no First Nation announced that 169 potential graves had been found at the site of a former residential school, Grouard Mission, about 370 kilometers northeast. west of Edmonton.

As a former RCMP officer, Yellowknee said his first instinct was to seek justice by having all potential burial sites designated as crime scenes by the RCMP as active files.

“After the elders came and talked to me, they said, ‘Chief, we kind of don’t want to disturb the dead. We would like to acknowledge that they are there… We will bless where the graves are, if we find any, and we would just like to leave a monument in that area.'”

He said he told the elders that he would respect their decision.

Beaver, 79, said the investigative process brought up memories of abuse while at boarding school.

Supernant said the research can be a trigger for community members and researchers and signals the need for ongoing mental health support.

“When you’re walking through areas that may have children’s graves,” she said, “it can be very heavy and heartbreaking work, as well as when we come back into the community and start talking results that we find.

“It’s very difficult for everyone.”

The investigation begins with the Pope’s visit

Yellowknee said emotions have been heightened and faith shaken as the search begins near Pope Francis’ visit to Alberta, which begins Sunday.

“Our faithful… people who truly believe in our Catholic faith, are now almost wondering where are we going to go?”

When asked if he would travel to Edmonton to see the Pope, Beaver replied, “I wouldn’t go there to see him.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their residential school experience and for those who are triggered.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.