The Kapawe’no First Nation in northern Alberta announced on Tuesday the discovery of 169 potential unmarked graves on the former grounds of the St. Bernard’s Indian Residential School, another in a growing number of school burial sites.
“Our little warriors have waited to find them and now we will ensure they rest in peace,” Chief Syd Halcrow said at a virtual news conference on Tuesday.
Kapawe’no First Nation, located near High Prairie, about 350 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, worked with the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta and used ground-penetrating radar and a specialized drone to help identify anomalies that have traits associated with graves. The search area was determined after reviewing the testimonies of residential-school survivors.
Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey did not mince words, saying the school was not just for learning but for a much more nefarious purpose.
“They were institutions established to kill the Indian in the child, and as the number of children found in graves continues to climb, we see it was never about erasing who we are but eradicating us all together. Genocide,” he said.
Kapawe’no First Nation searched one acre of land around the St. Bernard’s school over six days. In the first of three phases in the search, they identified 169 potential graves. Of those, 115 were found inside the existing community cemetery, some with no grave markers, while 54 potential graves were located in other areas around the school property.
Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, says that they do not need ground-penetrating radar results to prove that students did not come home from this school – or that survivors are telling the truth. Extensive archival records contain clear information about children dying in residence there.
“Survivor’s oral history is always backed up by the science,” Dr. Supernant said.
Parish records indicate that children who were believed to have died at the school were buried at the community cemetery, but those potential graves are not specifically marked, and no plot maps have been located.
The school opened in 1894 and had an enrolment of 20 pupils within two years, according to a history of the school prepared by the federal government as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. In 1918, the school began to fill with students orphaned by the influenza epidemic. The school population swelled again with a deadly smallpox outbreak in 1921. By 1925, enrolment reached 50 pupils.
The school had closed by 1958, but continued to run as a residence for Métis welfare wards until 1961. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation officially lists 10 students who died while attending the school between 1903 and 1947.
Mr. Noskey says now the world can finally see the truth that elders have always known.
“If we haven’t found them all, how can we heal? Unless we search every single residential school site in Canada for our children,” he said.
It is estimated that no fewer than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend these government-funded, church-run institutions throughout more than a century.
Thousands of residential-school survivors described having their cultures suppressed, and enduring physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and malnourishment.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation maintains a memorial register with the names of more than 4,000 children who died at those institutions.
In order to bring healing for their families, the chief is asking for co-operation from not only the churches, but the bishops, the municipalities and private landowners where further searches need to happen.
“We ask for your assistance that this be an unhindered process for us, to bring closure to this horrific history of our people,” the chief said.
During phases two and three of the research related to the St. Bernard’s site, areas will be investigated where the Anglican church, the Northwest Mounted Police, and government Indian agents had structures during the time. They will also continue to look into archival records and work with survivors and their oral histories.
Mr. Halcrow says this is not just a project for their people, it is a discovery of the truth.
“This should never be censored by anybody. It should be shared with everybody,” he said.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson said in a joint statement that the discovery “reminds us of the likelihood that there are unmarked graves of Indigenous children and youth at such sites across the province.”
“The Indian Residential School system was a wicked injustice that too often forcibly segregated children from their families and sought to suppress Indigenous culture and language,” they said. “Recorded instances of violence and abuse are part of the tragic memory and legacy of the system.”
The province has committed $8-million for research and commemoration of residential-school burial sites. And the Premier indicated in last week’s Throne Speech that the province intends to “erect a permanent memorial to residential-school victims and survivors on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature.”
Kapawe’no First Nation is inviting families and survivors to attend gatherings from May 9 to 13 where they will discuss the results of the initial search in detail and go over plans for the next phase.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.