Jonny Williams (Xotxwes), of the Sto:lo Nation, holds eagle feathers as he helps guide his late ancestors from an unmarked, undocumented burial site to a canoe so they can travel home, outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been discovered buried near the former school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Jonny Williams (Xotxwes), of the Sto:lo Nation, holds eagle feathers as he helps guide his late ancestors from an unmarked, undocumented burial site to a canoe so they can travel home, outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been discovered buried near the former school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

‘Delicate, sensitive process:’ Expert talks on searching for burial sites with radar

Alberta anthropologist says projects have to be community-led and culturally sensitive

Searching for unmarked burial sites is a painstaking process that not all Indigenous communities could be immediately ready for after the remains of more than 200 children were found at a former residential school in British Columbia, says an anthropologist who has done similar projects on the Prairies.

“Just a note of caution – we can’t just show up with our equipment and run surveys tomorrow,” says Kisha Supernant, an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“This is a delicate, sensitive process that requires such care. And communities must decide what would be the right way forward.”

Supernant, who is also Métis and a descendant of the Papaschase First Nation, says residential schools often had children from many different Nations attend, so communities must also come together to ensure any search work done is in keeping with cultural practices.

Last week, the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that the remains of 215 children had been found buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Chief Rosanne Casimir said the children, some as young as three, were students at the school, which was once the largest in Canada’s residential school system.

Kamloops Indian Residental School operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over operation from the Catholic Church to operate it as a day school until it closed in 1978.

Casimir said technology such as ground-penetrating radar allowed for a true accounting of the missing children and will hopefully bring some peace and closure to those lives lost.

Supernant uses the same technology to help Indigenous communities survey burial grounds. She and her team have worked with the Enoch Cree and Papaschase First Nations in the Edmonton area.

Ground-penetrating radar consists of a small antenna shaped as a box, which is dragged along the surface of the ground while sending a signal into the soil, she says. If there is a difference between the surrounding soil and a particular location, it changes the signal.

“In the case of looking for unmarked graves and burial locations, what this piece of equipment is able to show are areas that have been disturbed,” Supernant explains.

“When you dig a grave, the soil changes — the composition changes, the density can change — and the ground-penetrating radar can actually pick up that change.”

Her team pulls the equipment over the ground in a grid of 25-centimetre intervals, using frequencies best suited to detect changes two to three metres deep.

She worked on one project involving a residential school in 2018 in Saskatchewan. She and her team helped find remains of students of the Muscowequan Indian Residential School located near Lestock.

Supernant says she expected to get more requests after that project, but acknowledges that many Indigenous communities have a lot of pressing needs, such as mental health supports, housing and clean drinking water.

“Many communities don’t have access to the resources and the funding,” Supernant says. “And while, of course, this is very important, it’s also very difficult work and needs to be properly resourced.”

But Supernant says she expects to get more calls after the discovery in Kamloops, which has received attention countrywide.

In Nova Scotia, two groups that represent the province’s Mi’kmaq population issued a joint statement Monday saying ground-penetrating radar has been used at the former site of the Shubenacadie residential school, but no graves or human remains have been found.

The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs said archaeological investigations continue at the site north of Halifax

“With so many schools across the country, we are very aware that this is not an isolated incident,” the statement said.

The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative said it has been working for several years with Dorene Bernard, a survivor of the school and a respected elder in the community.

The group also said is looking at other possible locations to search with radar, including a nearby lake. “We all want to ensure that the site is fully investigated as this work is extremely important to our people.”

Supernant says while the discovery in Kamloops is devastating, she is not surprised.

“I know every school had a graveyard of some kind and we can only expect to see more stories like this coming out. And communities really need to be supporting in trying to find their relatives.”

Most importantly, Supernant says, the projects have to be community-led and culturally sensitive.

“There has to be space for ceremony, because this is very sacred,” she says.

“This involved these ancestors, these children, whose spirits often haven’t been cared for in the ways their relatives need them to be cared for.”

—Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Devastation over discovery at Kamloops residential school felt deeply throughout Shuswap

RELATED: B.C. teacher says students could be triggered by residential school discovery

residential schools

Just Posted

Dooris Raad was last seen in South Surrey’s Ocean Park neighbourhood on June 7. (Surrey RCMP photo)
(James Smith photo)
North Delta crime beat, week of May 31

A selection of property crimes submitted weekly by the Delta Police Department

The Lower Mainland Green Team and students from Earl Marriott Secondary remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park. (Contributed photo)
Green Team returns to White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park to monitor previous work

Environmental volunteers, South Surrey students remove invasive species

People were lined up around the fields at a drop-in vaccine clinic at Newton Athletic Park on Tuesday (April 27, 2021), which is one of the high-transmission neighbourhoods that are being given vaccine priority. This clinic was one of at least three to open in the city on Tuesday. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Surrey’s weekly cases continue to drop, push for 80% vaccination rate citywide

BCCDC reports 263 cases for Surrey the week of May 30 to June 5

Friends of Bear Creek Park held a ‘yellow-ribbon event’ on Saturday (June 12, 2021), with protesters at 84th Avenue and King George Boulevard and 84th Avenue and 140th Street. People were asked to tie a yellow ribbon in their yard “to celebrate and to show support for our trees in Bear Creek Park.” (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Protesters hold ‘yellow-ribbon’ event at Surrey’s Bear Creek Park

People asked to tie a yellow ribbon in their yard to ‘show support for our trees’

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Most Read