Star Blanket Cree Nation will now begin core sampling and DNA tests
Warning: This story contains distressing details.
CBC News: Ground penetrating radar searches at the site of the former Lebret Indian Industrial School found more than 2,000 “hits” over the past year, the man leading the search for Star Blanket Cree Nation announced Thursday.
The search also led to the discovery of human remains that, according to project lead Sheldon Poitras, the coroner’s service dated back to when the institution was in operation. “This information is going to hit home. I am not going to lie,” Poitras, who was a student at the school himself, said during a news conference.
Indigenous leaders and community members gathered Thursday inside the only standing remnant of the school: a gymnasium in Lebret, Sask., a village about 70 kilometres northeast of Regina. The gymnasium now serves as a gathering centre for the nation’s activities.
The search for unmarked graves took months of preparation, including a smudge walk of the institution’s grounds. The search team started using ground penetrating radar in November 2021.
- Star Blanket Cree Nation prepares to launch search of former Lebret Indian Industrial School
- Star Blanket Cree Nation begins ground-penetrating radar searches at site of former residential school
Star Blanket officials have said they were planning to examine more than 55 acres on the reserve. The band used past lessons and stories to inform the search, and consulted with elders to hear stories they were told about who may be buried at the school.
Some hits could be anomalies like rocks or tree roots, Poitras said, so the team will now start conducting core sampling to run DNA tests to confirm which hits are unmarked graves. The team decided on this method because elders want any potentially buried remains to stay undisturbed, he added.
Sharon Strongarm, a knowledge keeper and residential school survivor, felt a mix of relief and sadness Thursday.
“It’s very heartbreaking to me,” Strongarm said. “You just have to hope and pray that it’s not that many children to be found.”
But one of the seven teachings is truth, she explained, and this search is further revealing what happened.
‘Physical proof of an unmarked grave’
The team found a jaw bone fragment on the grounds and had it analyzed by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, Poitras said.
The coroners service confirmed to CBC News that a partial jaw was found by security at the site. An examination determined it was from a child — aged four to six — and “was historical in nature” and not within a medical or legal time period. Poitras said the coroners dated it about 125 years old, which would place it to when the institution was open.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s archives, the residential school operated under various names, including Qu’appelle, St. Paul’s and Whitecalf, from 1884 to 1998. Administration was transferred to the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School Council in 1973, then Star Blanket Cree Nation took over in 1984.
“This is physical proof of an unmarked grave,” Poitras said.
Many members of Star Blanket Cree Nation were forced to attend the residential school. Chief Michael Starr had previously said many members are looking for answers and to find relatives that never came home.
On Thursday, Starr described the discovery as hurtful and profound. “This discovery has changed everything,” he said. “It has changed the things we are going to do. It has changed our mindset and our way of life in a way. “Our hearts are heavy today.”
In May 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that ground penetrating radar had identified more than 200 suspected graves of children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
A difficult day for the members of the Star Blanket Cree Nation
Many Indigenous communities across Canada, including several in Saskatchewan, have since launched searches at former residential school sites.
But Thursday may have marked the first time one of those searches led to remains being found, said federal Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Marc Miller, who attended Thursday’s announcement via Zoom. “To my knowledge, this is the first instance of verified human remains at the site of a residential school since the discovery in Kamloops,” said Miller
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is mourning with the people of Star Blanket Cree Nation, and ensured them that the Canadian government will support the community throughout its healing journey, he said in a statement issued Thursday. “We will be there every step of the way.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe also offered condolences in a statement posted on social media, saying Star Blanket Cree Nation has “the full support of the government at this difficult time.”
For Medicine Bear and his family the child’s jaw bone, in part, serves as validation.
“We knew that this land is very sacred, but we knew that there were atrocities here,” he said.
Bear, a member of Peepeekisis First Nation, survived Lebret Indian Industrial School from 1986 to 1991, he said. His father, now 87, also survived the school.
His father would tell stories about how the children would go to bed at night and some would be gone the following morning, Bear said. The children would discuss among themselves what may have happened to their classmate. “They all knew something,” Bear said.
The results announced Thursday are considered the first stage of the process.
The search team will now start using ground penetrating radar in other areas, Poitras said.
Star Blanket was also able to secure agreements with some landowners to search areas once operated by the residential school. The entire search was projected to take at least three years.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Quon is a reporter with CBC Saskatchewan based in Regina. After working in Atlantic Canada for four years he’s happy to be back in his home province. He has previously worked with the CBC News investigative unit in Nova Scotia and Global News in Halifax. Alexander specializes in data-reporting, COVID-19 and municipal political coverage. He can be reached at: Alexander.Quon@cbc.ca.