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Nineteen anomalies have been located using ground-penetrating radar during a search for unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school northeast of Edmonton.

Initial findings from the search at Blue Quills residential school describe the anomalies as reflections of interest, meaning they have traits consistent with burials but more analysis is needed.

“This report details the results of what is the beginning of a long journey to find answers to what happened to the children who never came home from the residential school at the Blue Quills,” said the report released Wednesday.

The search was organized by University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’i nistameyimakanak Blue Quills, which is a First Nations-operated university at the site of the former residential school.

Kisha Supernant, an Indigenous archeologist and director of the University of Alberta’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, came to the site near St. Paul with her team last August.

They used ground-based ground-penetrating radar, the report said, targeting areas that had been identified earlier by elders and residential school survivors. Drone imagery was also taken in the areas that were surveyed.

Elders lifted their pipes daily during the search to ensure the work was done with deep respect for missing children, their families and all survivors, a news release from the university said.

The report advised that ground-penetrating radar is “not able to confirm the presence or absence of human remains” so it is not a foolproof method of detecting graves.

It noted the results may be disappointing for community members in need of answers, but what was found provides information and a starting point for further investigation.

“We recognize that the results of the survey for unmarked graves may be distressing for members of the community and for all the survivors, as every child matters and there remains a lack of justice and accountability for what happened,” the report said.

Marc Miller, federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, posted on social media that he was “thinking of all the families from the numerous Indigenous communities who had children sent to Blue Quills Residential School.”

“Canada will continue to support them as they continue their search for the truth.”

The school was started by Roman Catholic missionaries in Lac la Biche but later moved to the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. It was relocated again in 1931 to St. Paul.

Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which looked into the legacy of residential schools in Canada, about humiliation, hunger, and physical and sexual abuse at the Blue Quills residential school.

Parents of children at the school occupied the institution in 1970 and demanded its operation be turned over to the First Nation. It became Canada’s first residence and school controlled by First Nations people and was later transformed into the university.

A report released earlier this year from an unrelated group found unpasteurized milk was responsible for many deaths of Indigenous children at the same institution.

That report by the Acimowin Opaspiw Society, formed by the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in 2021, found the children were being fed unpasteurized milk and later many developed tuberculosis and other diseases.

School staff and administrators had their own pasteurized dairy products, the report found, and they were healthy.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

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