How ground-penetrating radar helped discover 751 unmarked graves at Marieval Indian Residential School

·3 min read
How ground-penetrating radar helped discover 751 unmarked graves at Marieval Indian Residential School
Ground penetrating radar work began on June 2 and will be used in the future to aid the Cowessess First Nation in locating more unmarked gravesites its Chief Cadmus Delorme said.  (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation - image credit)
Ground penetrating radar work began on June 2 and will be used in the future to aid the Cowessess First Nation in locating more unmarked gravesites its Chief Cadmus Delorme said. (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details that could be distressing.

The burgeoning relationship between the Cowessess First Nation and Saskatchewan's technical college helped to establish the locations of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.

Larry Rosia, the president and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, told CBC's Canada Tonight on Wednesday that the school was humbled to be part of the project that confirmed information suspected by members of the Cowessess First Nation.

"Our role in this project was really technology related," Rosia said.

The technology — ground-penetrating radar — was deployed at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on May 31.

Technical teams from Saskatchewan Polytechnic scanned around 44,000 square metres of area, with preliminary findings reporting 751 "recorded hits" at the site, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said during a news conference on Thursday morning.

Each hit could could represent more than one set of remains.

The radar work has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate, according to Delorme, and a verified number will be provided by technical teams in the coming weeks.

Submitted by Cowessess First Nation
Submitted by Cowessess First Nation

The findings are a culmination of a relationship between Cowessess First Nation and Saskatchewan Polytechnic that began in 2018.

Rosia said members of Saskatchewan Polytechnic's engineering technology faculty were helping to create digital mapping procedures to help 911 responder locate and respond to emergencies on the Cowessess First Nation quicker.

The success of that project led to further discussions and the eventual deployment of the ground-penetrating radar technology.

"One of the things that Saskatchewan Polytechnic prides itself is working with communities and industries and entrepreneurs on applied research," Rosia said.

"We took technology and applied it to a community problem that needed to be solved."

Funding was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Digging up the past, even if it is as recent as the Marieval Indian Residential School — which operated from 1899 to 1997 — can be difficult.

The ground-penetrating radar technology made that burden easier.

The cemetery on the site of the former residential school is delineated, but many of the graves are no longer marked.

Delorme said on Thursday that there may have at one point been markers for some of the graves, but that the Roman Catholic church, which oversaw the cemetery, may have removed them at some point in the 1960s.

CBC
CBC

The unmarked graves in the cemetery may not all belong to children, Delorme said, but there are oral stories within Cowessess First Nation about both children and adults being there.

Some of the remains may be people who attended the church or were from nearby towns.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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