‘The emotions will be brought back’: Star Blanket Cree Nation prepares search for unmarked graves

TORONTO —
A Saskatchewan First Nation is bracing to find human remains as the search begins for unmarked graves near another former residential school, one which survivors have told stories about for years.

On Monday, Star Blanket Cree Nation will begin to search the area around Qu’Appelle Industrial Residential School in Saskatchewan with ground-penetrating radar.

The pain of this work is already being felt, says Chief Michael Starr, who plans to have therapists on hand.

“The emotions will be brought back and we wanted people to be there in case that happens,” Starr told CTV News.

“We have a strong indication that we are going to find some remains in our area.”

Since 215 unmarked graves were confirmed at Kamloops Indian Residential School last spring, more than 1,000 unmarked graves have been found near former residential schools across the country, with only a fraction of the schools searched.

Starr explained that elders will be present at the start of the search, as well as contractors and members of the community, and that the grounds will be blessed before the ground-penetrating radar begins.

Multiple locations on the school’s grounds and surrounding areas will be searched using the technology.

There is no cemetery in the community, except one beside the local church in the centre of town.

“There is no graveyard, no cemetery, close to the old residential school,” Starr said.

The search sites will be based on testimonials from former students and elders who witnessed or heard stories of what happened at the facility.

Starr said that there are stories of “dungeons” that students were taken to and hidden passages “for them to do what they did and take some of our people to different areas”.

“I’ve seen a space where it was covered up, and right now its sunken in where we’ve been told [residential school workers were] probably taking our children there to do the unthinkable things that we’ve come to understand that they did,” Starr said.

The Qu’Appelle Industrial Residential School, sometimes known as the Lebret school or St. Paul’s school, operated from 1884 to 1998 and was mainly run by the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Qu’Appelle School had a high student death rate. Only nine years after opening, the school reported it had discharged 174 students, 71 of whom had died.

Residential school survivor and veteran Fred Gordon passed away in October, but in an interview with CTV News five years ago, he remembers sneaking out at night to get away from the abuse of a nun, only to witness something much worse.

“When I was walking down this path, I fell in this hole about three feet deep and that was the flower bed,” Gordon said. “I saw this priest coming by and he had something draped over his shoulder, carrying something, and they went to that hole and they dumped it in there.”

Ethel Dubois says she’s ready for the truth to be uncovered. She was forced to attend the facility in 1961 at only five years old, spending 11 years there.

“With my own tradition and culture I was able to overcome a lot of the emotional impact,” she told CTV News. “I say that I’m well on my way to healing.”

She endured multiple forms of abuse while at Qu’Appelle School, including physical and sexual violence, and was not allowed to see her siblings in the same building.

“I was always alone because my other siblings were always in a different part of the school,” she said. “Feeling segregated from my family members — being the youngest one in my family — I needed them.”

Dubois has been a part of the planned search since the start, working as an elder as well as “part of their support team as a mental-health therapist.”

“For me, I went through all of my healing, and it’s very easy for me to speak about my experiences,” she said.

But many survivors are still struggling today with trauma from abuse inflicted on them in Canada’s residential school system.

Starr said he grew up with family and community members who were deeply affected by their time in residential school, but couldn’t talk about it until relatively recently.

“They did a lot of alcohol to try to erase that memory,” he said.

His father attended residential school, and it impacted how he related to his family.

“He didn’t talk about it a lot to us, but we saw and felt the impacts at home,” Starr said.

He said the ripple effect of the residential school system is hurting future generations, and for some residential school survivors, the renewed conversation around what happened years ago in these schools has only brought some of the pain to the surface again.

“They’re thinking about when they went to residential school and things that have happened to them,” Starr said. “It’s a very emotional time for our community.”

Apart from searching areas directly near the former school, searches will also be done around a nearby cemetery in Lebret in the future. Scans are also planned for across a lake where a missionary once stood.

The scanning process will be completed in three phases and is could to take up to three years.

Starr said that if remains are located, they plan to build a cemetery in that region and mark where the graves are.

“If they’re buried now, that’s where they should remain,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do, and respect what our elders […] have told us.”

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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.



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