'They deserve to rest in peace': U of S team working to find unmarked graves at Saskatoon graveyard

·3 min read
Spencer Lyons from the U of S uses a ground-penetrating radar to look for unmarked graves at Nutana Pioneer Cemetery. (Dave Stobbe - image credit)
Spencer Lyons from the U of S uses a ground-penetrating radar to look for unmarked graves at Nutana Pioneer Cemetery. (Dave Stobbe - image credit)

A group of archeology students and a professor from the University of Saskatchewan are working to find a group of unmarked graves at the Nutana Pioneer Cemetery.

There are 162 known burials at the cemetery, including 51 babies and 14 children under the age of 16, according to the City of Saskatoon, which is working with the group.

However, the locations of 18 gravesites are unknown.

This cemetery became the unofficial burying ground for Saskatoon in 1884, according to the city. It became an official cemetery in 1889 and the last person was buried there in 1948.

In the 1970s city workers relocated some of the graves due to a series of slumping episodes that began in the early 1900s. The city said those graves are accounted for. However, due to poor record keeping, there are other people reported to have been buried at the graveyard who don't have an identified grave.

There may also be burials that the city isn't aware of.

Terence Clark, a professor with the U of S Archeology and Anthropology department who's leading the project, said the techniques they're using to find the lost graves are non-invasive, meaning they won't disturb the grave sites or cause any damage to the cemetery.

One of the techniques is called ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

It involves pulling a small machine that measures differences in the soil's density by sending a radar beam into the ground. The time it takes for the signal to return depends on how dense the soil is.

Ground-penetrating radar involves pulling a small machine that essentially measures differences in the soil’s density by sending a radar beam into the ground and waiting for it to come back.
Ground-penetrating radar involves pulling a small machine that essentially measures differences in the soil’s density by sending a radar beam into the ground and waiting for it to come back. (Dave Stobbe)

If the machine detects softer soil, that means a burial shaft may have been dug there. Once the machine detects a section of softer soil, the person operating it can essentially draw out the burial site, if there is one.

They're also using three-dimensional mapping software for their GPR to get an image of soil disruptions.

Clark said they're able to see much more than just a grave shaft with this technique.

"In some instances, we've got a soft sort of pit and then we've got a hard, high density rectangular object right in the middle — which we're assuming is the coffin — which I've never actually seen before doing this work," he said.

With the addition of other techniques, like satellite imagery or environmental DNA, Clark said they can be "absolutely certain" where a grave is without digging.

Identifying graves of Indigenous children who died in residential schools

The project is happening while searches continue across Canada for the graves of Indigenous children who died while attending residential schools, something Clark said his team is also interested in.

More than 130 residential schools operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996, the last of which closed in Punnichy, Sask., in 1996.

Many of the schools have since been demolished, with the properties belonging to private owners, according to Clark.

"It is really important for us to go in and say, 'OK, here are the graves. This is a cemetery. It's a recognized cemetery, and you can't build anything here. You can't disturb these children any more. They've gone through enough in life. They deserve to rest in peace."

Clark has also worked with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to develop a plan for locating the remains of missing children at residential school sites across Canada.