WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
A weekend of searching for unmarked graves is now underway at the site of the former Delmas Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs, a council representing six First Nation communities in the area, announced Thursday that they had partnered with SNC Lavalin to conduct a ground-penetrating radar search at the school’s site about 30 kilometers northwest of Battlefords.
According to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, students at the school, also known as Thunderchild or St. Henri Indian Residential School, often of a wide range of diseases including typhoid, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, jaundice and pneumonia. .
The center lists the names of more than 40 students known to have died while forced to go to school or shortly after graduation.
On Saturday, survivors from residential school, elders and members of the public gathered at the former school site along with the people who now own the land where the school stood.
Karen Whitecalf, a project manager who organized the weekend survey on behalf of the tribal council, said she feels it is important to have people on site.
“Our people knew our children were lying on these grounds. We always knew,” she said.
“We should not keep secrets anymore. So we welcome everyone here.”
Whitecalf said she wants to see healing for the Delmas community and for First Nations people whose children were taken to school.
Delmas Indian Residential School was established by the Roman Catholic Church and operated by oblates from 1901 to 1948, when the school burned down.
Survivors who were there the last year the school operated told CBC News that they believed the fire could have been deliberately started by students.
SE | Thunderchild Indian Residential School survivor describes the night the school burned down:
Noel Moosuk, an elder from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, said his mother and father were taken to Delmas Indian Residential School.
They were afraid to speak their language because of their experiences there, he said, and would not share much about their experiences at school.
Moosuk said while expecting the weekend’s search will be tough, but he’s happy to be a part of the effort.
“The story needs to be rewritten. There are still stories that we need to tell,” he said.
The ground-penetrating radar searches, he said, will help tell the countless stories from the housing school.
The Delmas site is the latest that has been searched using ground-covering radar. This method was previously used to detect 751 “hits” at the site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess First Nation, east of Regina. Each “hit” could represent one or more sets of human remains.
A final statement of the number of “hits” recorded by ground-attenuating radar at the Delmas site is not expected to come this weekend, but Moosuk said he believes remains of children from the surrounding area will be discovered reserves.
Saturday’s search marked the start of the first step in the Battlefords Agency’s Tribal Chiefs’ efforts. Five more steps are planned, including search efforts on the Battleford Industrial School website in August or September.
Support is available to anyone affected by their experience in residential schools and those triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian housing school crisis line has been set up to provide support to 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.
Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or the school staff and operation? Submit your tips to CBC’s new original led team investigating residential schools: [email protected].