WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The George Gordon First Nation in southern Saskatchewan is taking early steps to help guide a future search for unmarked graves at the site once home to the Gordon's Indian Residential School.
The project will initially involve collecting stories from survivors and their descendants to help pinpoint grounds worth searching, organizers say.
"We're trying to do a strategic, thoughtful, mindful process," said band member Sarah Longman, who has experience helping search for graves at the site of the Regina Industrial School.
Longman, Chief Byron Bitternose and survivor Ed Bitternose are part of a local team helping plan the community's approach. The reserve is located about 113 kilometres northeast of Regina, near the village of Punnichy.
"[Survivors and descendants] are going to help us define certain locations, because when you hear the same story a number of times on this particular spot, you should probably do some checking on that particular spot," Longman said.
Ed Bitternose said he attended three Saskatchewan residential schools, including the Gordon's Indian Residential School for one year in 1958 and 1959.
When Bitternose left the system in 1966, "I said to myself and to my buddies that I would never, ever send my kids to a residential school. Just one got away on me and went to Gordon's for a week."
Major Christian denominations operated approximately 20 federally funded residential schools in Saskatchewan beginning in the late 19th century. After being separated from their communities and families, children were subjected to various forms of neglect and abuse.
The Gordon's Indian Residential School launched as a day school under the Anglican Church of Canada in 1876, expanding 12 years later to provide housing for students. The school burned down in 1929 and was rebuilt, finally closing in 1996.
The school "is infamous for its abuses of children," according to the George Gordon First Nation website.
"It has a lot of effects on our community," Chief Bitternose said of the school's legacy. "There's lots of different areas that our people are struggling with."
'Relentless abuse of students'
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) shed light on some of the documented abuses at the residential school. It found that, in the 1930s, students were confined to the infirmary as punishment.
"While they were locked up, students might not be allowed to see their parents if they visited the school," the TRC wrote in the volume of its findings entitled Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.
Later that decade, the principal of the school was advised by a federal official that "while it is doubtful" that cutting girls' hair "constitutes assault in a legal sense, at the same time it is felt that you should adopt some other method of enforcing discipline."
Eleven-year-old Andrew Gordon ran away from the school in 1939. The principal never organized a search or informed the family.
One girl was hospitalized after being punished in 1956.
"Indian Affairs did not become aware of this until after the principal in charge of the school had resigned and fled the country," the TRC wrote.
Other forms of physical abuse included slapping students and banging their heads against doors and walls.
"The school had a long history of poor management, sexual abuse of students, and complaints that discipline was harsh and abusive," according to the TRC. "Throughout the school's later years, its management did not control the staff. The result was relentless abuse of students."
In 1993, the man who had been appointed by the federal government as administrator of the residence, William Starr, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for sexually assaulting 10 male students. Starr was in charge of the student residence from the late 1960s to 1984.
'There's always been stories'
The TRC found that, across Canada, 4,100 named and unnamed students died in residential schools and that many were likely buried in unmarked and untended graves at school or school-related cemeteries. The practice was to keep burial costs low and oppose sending students' bodies back to their home communities.
Based on its preliminary work searching for burial sites, the TRC determined there are likely to be other unidentified residential gravesites across the country.
Some people, including residential school staff and their children, are buried at St. Luke's Church on the George Gordon First Nation reserve, Ed Bitternose said.
But discovering whether any Gordon's residential school students were buried in unmarked graves, and where, is why Bitternose and the rest of the team are seeking the community's input.
"There's always been stories of lost babies or babies of pregnant girls seeming to disappear, or the girl is not being pregnant after they were there for a while," Bitternose said.
Along with survivors' and descendants' stories, maps of the area will also help potentially narrow down the search, Bitternose said.
"We'll use that kind of information going forward to try to identify where we might do this [ground-penetrating radar work] if we go in that direction," he said.
Other Sask. search efforts
George Gordon First Nation is just the latest Saskatchewan Indigenous group to announce such plans since B.C.'s Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported the discovery of a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in late May. Preliminary findings released by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation suggest the site contains the remains of 215 children.
Around the same time, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said it would conduct ground-penetrating radar work at the site where the Cowessess residential school, also known as Marievale, operated near Grayson, Sask., until 1997.
Two weeks ago, the First Nation announced its search had detected 751 unmarked graves.
Four other Saskatchewan First Nations have either begun work or confirmed plans
Most recently, Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band said the band is planning a search at the Lac La Ronge school site, also known as All Saints. The school operated until 1947, when it burned down for a second time and students were moved to either the Gordon's residential school or the Prince Albert school.
Cook-Searson said a meeting to finalize the ground-penetrating radar work is happening on Monday.
Since the Kamloops discovery, $2 million in provincial funding and another $4.9 million from the federal government has been earmarked to help assist in the search for unmarked residential school graves in Saskatchewan.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, is co-ordinating those funds.
"The FSIN has already identified the former residential schools of Muskowekwan, Onion Lake St. Anthony's, Beauval, Guy Hill, Lebret and Sturgeon Landing as possible sites for research," the federation stated in a recent press release.
"However, it is believed that the list of locations First Nations would like to investigate could increase."
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.