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

The Trail Smoke Eaters will open the 2021 season on Oct. 8 against the Cranbrook Bucks in Cranbrook, and will have their home opener the next night against the same Bucks. Photo: Jack Murray
BC Hockey League announces 54-game schedule to begin in October

Trail Smoke Eaters open season with home-and-home series versus Cranbrook Bucks

Daryl Jolly, his wife Kerry Pagdin, their sons Cole Jolly (left) and Graeme Jolly, and their dogs Gracie and Clover. Photo: Submitted
Selkirk College arts chair diagnosed with lung cancer, family launches fund drive

Daryl Jolly co-founded the college’s digital arts program

TELUS is proposing to construct a 5G tower at Pople Park. Photo: Sheri Regnier
First 5G tower in Trail proposed for placement in popular park

TELUS has a consultation process open until June 28

The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League met for their AGM and announced a number of new initiatives, new awards and changes in their executive committee, as well as the starting date for the 2021-22 season. Paul Rodgers file.
KIJHL announces start dates for 2021-22 season

Season set to begin Oct. 1 with league still following all health guidelines

South Slocan’s Ti Loran is among the recipients of this year’s Neil Muth Memorial Scholarship. Photo: Submitted
Neil Muth Memorial Scholarships awarded to 4 students

Students in Creston, South Slocan and Revelstoke are sharing the honour

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Grace (left), a caribou that was born in a maternal pen north of Revelstoke, is alive and well said the province. It appears she even has a calf. Maternity pens aim to increase caribou calf survival by protecting them from predation until they are older and less vulnerable. (Contributed)
For the first time in years, caribou numbers increasing near Revelstoke

North herd growing but south herd still concerning

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

Kelowna General Hospital. (File photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital declared over

Three people tested positive for the virus — two patients and one staff — one of whom died

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

Most Read