Sucker Creek First Nation Chief Roderick Willier remembers never feeling safe during the decade he spent at a residential school in northern Alberta.
“I always had to stay on high alert when I was there,” Willier said, as he recalled his time between the age of seven and 17 at St. Bruno’s Indian Residential School in Joussard, Alta., about 335 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
“I was always told, ‘Oh, you got to be careful of them (at residential school).'”
University of Alberta researchers recently found evidence of 88 potential unmarked graves near the former school.
Dr. Kisha Supernant, who led the search, said the project focused on the areas pointed out by residential school survivors and elders of the community.
Supernant’s team surveyed 4,500 square metres of land, using ground-penetrating radar to look for pits or grave shafts.
She said the team found signs of unmarked graves outside of the school cemetery area at two locations — one of them close to the workshop on the school’s grounds, the other near the priest’s residence.
Supernant, who has family roots in Joussard, said the research team recommends further investigation for graves found outside of a cemetery on the grounds of a school.
“What is going on here? What are graves doing in these locations that are not inside of a known cemetery area?”
But all interpretations and findings through the ground-penetrating system are not necessarily true, said Talisha Chaput, program co-ordinator with the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta.
“Ground-penetrating system is one way of looking underneath the ground … it is not an end-all-be-all technology,” she said. Chaput said there are alternate methods to confirm whether the graves are actually present.
Some other ways to confirm the potential graves are through testimonies, historical records and school attendance records of students. Excavation or bringing trained dogs to smell human bones buried in the ground could also help confirm the unmarked graves.
While teachings around whether to disturb graves are not universal, Chaput said excavation is against the customs of many of the First Nations that she and her colleagues have worked with.
“Although there are cases where it may be unavoidable.”
The community in Joussard has yet to decide their next steps to confirm the graves.
More than 1,100 people from the community gathered in Joussard on Saturday for a blanket ceremony to honour those suspected to be in the unmarked graves.
“People were wrapped in the blanket, and they cuddled in that blanket to show compassion, care and love,” said Shane Pospisil, executive director of the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council, which represents a number of First Nations around Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta.
He said the community is feeling a range of emotions — lots of tears and smiles, and for some, just an ordinary day in the town.
Pospisil said the community is going to expand its search for more unmarked graves over the next two years, including land they weren’t able to access last summer.
Supernant said First Nations communities face challenges with accessing the land. Some previous school areas have been rebuilt into new complexes while others were bought by private landowners.
“This is a real challenge because these are big, big plots of land that the schools were built on. And there are many places that need to be searched,” she said.
For Willier, the chief of Sucker Creek First Nation, it is all about moving forward and healing as a community while keeping remembering the history.
“Now, we have to educate our young people because that’s something that we cannot forget.
Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.