First Nation teams with researchers to find graves of missing children from former residential school

Archeologists help pinpoint locations for commemorative site as part of project to turn Muskowekwan Residential School building into a museum.

Jordan Mae Cook - 5 February 2019

A Métis archeologist at the University of Alberta working with the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan may have discovered graves of missing children from the nearby residential school that closed in 1997.

"In the records there were 35 children who were unaccounted for, that disappear off the records, and nobody quite knows what happened," said Kisha Supernant.

The Muskowekwan Residential School operated from 1889 to 1997 and stands on the land of the Muskowekwan First Nation, which is trying to save the deteriorating building-one of the last standing residential school buildings in Western Canada-to turn it into a museum.

As part of the preservation, the community wants to locate the children who went missing while attending the school.

Thanks to support and co-ordination from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Supernant and grad student Liam Wadsworth joined Terence Clark from the University of Saskatchewan in an attempt to locate the burial sites with ground-penetrating radar.

"I was approached because I've done work where we use techniques to look below the surface of the ground without digging. In this case we were interested in radar, which has been used in other contexts to look at possible grave locations. It's a completely non-destructive, non-invasive technology," explained Supernant.

The non-damaging technology enables its users to find potential sites without disturbing them, allowing the community to decide how they want to proceed after the sites have been located.

"In this case, Muskowekwan's preference is to create a boundary around those areas, and then perhaps create some signage to indicate, to tell that story, but not to do any further disturbance," said Supernant.

When children disappear out of the records of a residential school, they are not necessarily buried around the building; some may have run away or been taken out of school by their parents. But as Supernant explained, often the fate of these missing children is more tragic.

"There are cases where people remember, 'This girl was buried by that landmark,' or sometimes other students even helped [in the burials]; there are stories of that from the testimony (during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings)," she said. "In some cases there are places where people have found bones washing out of different areas and things like that."

Supernant explained when specific sites are identified and remains found, or remains are exposed through washing out or digging, there is the possibility of identifying the children, or at least who they were related to.

Supernant acknowledged the difficulty of the work for both the researchers and the community.

"Any time you're dealing with missing children, it can really bring people back into trauma. We did have support through the community and we have to make sure the researchers involved have the training to be able to understand the outcome for the communities, and that both the communities and the researchers have the support they need," Supernant explained.

"So it's not just about getting us out there on the ground, it's about what happens after that."

Supernant and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation hope to see other communities with residential school sites reach out if they are interested in undertaking similar work.

"This is something we're hoping other communities will approach us to do. Because we do have the equipment, time and willingness to go out and do this around a residential school if the community wants it," Supernant explained.

She added several of the TRC calls to action specifically say the missing children must be found.

"The national centre is committed to helping do that, and bringing in people with expertise to help," she said.

"This is really meaningful work for all of us involved, and we take it really seriously. We recognize the gravity of it, but also the extreme significance of doing this for healing. We've got to set these spirits to rest before we can move forward in a good way."