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The chair of a working group probing the dark history of Yukon residential schools says she was shocked to learn of her own brother’s death at one of the territory’s institutions.

Adeline Webber, who leads the Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children Working Group, told a news conference Friday that ground-penetrating radar searches will begin this summer at the site of the Choutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon.

Webber, a long-time Indigenous rights advocate, said she went to a residential school as did many of her family members, but she never knew her older brother’s fate until the group’s work began.

“One of my brothers died at the Choutla Residential School,” Webber said. “In one of my first meetings, I was given a list of students and I went through that and there was my brother’s name. That was the first time I knew when he died.”

The working group is part of the Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Project and is tasked with identifying Indigenous children who went missing while attending.

The group originally began with the Choutla school but is now expanding its scope to include other sites in Dawson and Whitehorse, Webber said.

Thousands of Indigenous children who attended Canada’s residential schools died or disappeared over the many decades they were forced by the federal government to attend the institutions. The issue of missing children returned to the spotlight two years ago when the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc in Kamloops, B.C., announced it had used ground-penetrating radar to reveal the possible graves of 215 children.

Webber said preliminary research and information from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 42 children who died at the Choutla school, which was operated by the Anglican Church from 1911 until 1969.

She said archival research by the group has been hampered by “terrible documentation” in some cases, making it difficult to pin down the identities of missing students and the communities from which they were taken.

The group’s work is highly sensitive and trauma inducing, she said, and they believe the number of children known to be missing will increase as its research efforts expand to include other residential school sites in the territory.

The group is also recruiting people from other Yukon communities to interview residential school survivors and their families about any information they may have about children who went missing while attending the schools.

They’re focusing on the Carcross site because they have the most detailed information about it so far, but Webber said the group is consulting with other First Nations because kids sent to the schools were from all over the territory.

“Cultural protocols will be very, very important,” she said. “It is very, very sensitive work.”

Webber said that the Catholic and Anglican churches that ran the institutions have been co-operative with their work, and that searches this summer at Choutla will focus on grounds in and around the site where burials may have taken place.

With the group’s expanded scope, Webber said they’ll also be dealing with sites of the territory’s other residential schools including the Whitehorse Baptist School that operated until 1962, the Aklavik Anglican Indian Residential School that closed in 1959, and the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in Dawson that was open from 1920 to 1943.

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