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Mary Sarah Genaille speaks at a public event at the Keeseekoose School Gymnasium at Keeseekoose First Nation on Feb. 15, 2022. Ground-penetrating radar has revealed that up to 54 unmarked graves have been found at the site of former residential schools St. Philip's and Fort Pelly.Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

A Saskatchewan First Nation has discovered 54 possible unmarked graves on the grounds of two former Catholic-run residential schools, adding to the ever growing national tally of suspected school burials that has drawn international scrutiny to Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Keeseekoose First Nation, located 235 kilometres northeast of Regina, used ground-penetrating radar to search the grounds of St. Philip’s and Fort Pelly residential schools.

“It’s going to be a very tough time for our community,” Keeseekoose Chief Lee Kitchemonia said. “Knowing that we had unmarked graves in our community, in our common areas that we drive by every day, that we walk by every day, that we’d pass by never realizing that there was graves there – that’s got to be the most hurtful part.”

During a Tuesday press conference, the project manager for the search, Ted Quewezance, said the radar had returned 54 “hits” – 42 at Fort Pelly and 12 at St. Philip’s – during a two-month survey that covered three hectares of land that school survivors had identified as a potential burial site.

Hits are distinct radar reflections, often showing columns of disturbed soil consistent with a burial. In most cases, ground penetrating radar detects the shaft of soil atop a grave rather than a grave’s contents.

The First Nation of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, in B.C.’s interior, deployed the same search method before announcing last May that it had discovered the “remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Residential School.” The anthropologist leading the search later revised the language and figure to say the search had found 200 probable burials.

The Tk’emlúps revelation last May initiated a period of reflection and mourning across the country. Flags on federal buildings were lowered to half-mast for five months. International media followed the story closely, including a lengthy segment on the CBS news program 60 Minutes, hosted by Anderson Cooper.

At least 20 communities have since begun ground-penetrating radar work and six have announced preliminary findings.

The Keeseekoose announcement was unique for the presence of representatives from the institutions responsible for establishing residential schools: the Crown and the Catholic Church. Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Russell Mirasty and the Archbishop of the Regina Diocese, Donald Bolen, all gave brief remarks.

“Victims and perpetrators need to heal if we are going to take a step closer to closure,” said Mr. Quewezance of their attendance. “Forgiveness is a hard thing to do, my friends. But it is powerful because it empowers.”

The Keeseekoose First Nation is now embarking on a research project to identify who could be buried in the sites, starting with efforts with the Archdiocese to name all the students attended the schools.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) site lists two students who died while attending Fort Pelly: Bella Andy and Henriette Andy. They died on the same day in 1912. Two students are listed as dying St. Philip’s: Camilla Bertha Whitehawk in 1962 and Alfred Whitehawk in 1965.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Missing Children Project has so far documented more than 4,000 children who died at the more than 130 residential schools that once operated around the country. Some survivors told the commission about being forced to bury other children, and residential school survivors and Indigenous communities have long spoken of children who disappeared, died by suicide or were victims of homicide at residential schools.

The Fort Pelly school operated from around 1901 until 1913, when it was closed because of low enrolment, poor conditions and the ill health of its principal, according to the book Shattering the Silence: The Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan, authored by the University of Regina’s Faculty of Education.

St. Philip’s operated from 1928 until 1969 and had a resident student enrolment of 132 in the 1964-65 school year. In the 1960s, students suffered rampant sexual and physical abuse and a school supervisor was fired for mistreating students, according to the NCTR.

The Keeseekoose search had to stop because of snow. Surveyors have yet to search an additional four hectares of land identified by elders.

Mr. Quewezance, a residential school survivor, said more graves are likely to be discovered.

“These stories have been part of part of our truth-telling for the last 125 years,” he said. “We all knew that we would find gravesites.”

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