Ground search at former residential school site in Carcross, Yukon, set to begin this summer

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The former Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, which was demolished in 1993. A search using ground-penetrating radar will begin on the site this summer. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives - image credit)
The former Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, which was demolished in 1993. A search using ground-penetrating radar will begin on the site this summer. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

A search for unmarked graves on the site of a former residential school in Carcross, Yukon, is scheduled to begin later this summer.

Adeline Webber, co-chair of the Chooutla Working Group along with Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre vice-chair Judy Gingell, said the man hired to conduct the search will use ground-penetrating radar at the site of the former Chooutla Indian Residential School in late July or early August, depending on the weather.

"Students from all over the Yukon, northern B.C. and the N.W.T. may have attended that school," said Webber, who founded the Whitehorse Women's Women's Aboriginal Circle and is its current vice-president.

She said the man, whom she declined to name, has worked with other First Nations to search for remains at other former residential school sites across the country.

Webber said the search will focus on Carcross this summer and will then continue, likely beginning next year, at seven other locations where there were residential schools and hostels in the territory. The searches at all eight locations are expected to take four years.

Wayne Vallevand/CBC
Wayne Vallevand/CBC

Yukon First Nations received $435,000 from the federal government and $595,000 from the Yukon government to help with the search, it was announced late last week at an intergovernmental forum with representatives from Yukon First Nation governments, as well as from the territorial and federal governments.

The announcement came one year after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced it found the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since then, other human remains have been found at several other former residential schools across the country.

Research

Webber said the working group's researcher is going through school and church records to get a sense of how many children died at each location and where they might be buried, including in Carcross.

"There's really no graveyard around the school or anything like that. So, you know, who knows where they were buried," said Webber, whose brother died at the Carcross residential school around 1942. Webber and her sister attended the Whitehorse Baptist School.

"They could have been buried in the cemetery, but we don't know that. So that's why it's important to just get the research well underway before we start doing any ground searching."

She said her group has been working with communities and has been in contact with the territory's chief coroner, the RCMP and the courts to discuss the process should they find some remains.

Residential schools in Yukon

There were four residential schools in the Yukon. The first one, in Carcross, was established in 1911 and operated by the Anglican Church until 1969. It was demolished in 1993. The others were the Whitehorse Baptist School in Whitehorse, the Aklavik Anglican Residential School at Shingle Point and the St. Paul's Indian Residential School in Dawson City.

According to Yukon Archives, the territorial government began establishing public schools in communities and "there was a gradual movement to close the residential schools and transfer the students into the public school system."

Yukon Archives
Yukon Archives

By the late 1970s, each residential school had been shut down.

However, the public schools only went up to Grade 7 and students who wanted to continue their education had to move to Whitehorse or Dawson City.

Three school hostels – where students lived after going to public school during the day – were established in Whitehorse and one, St. Paul's, in Dawson City.

Many Yukon Indigenous children also attended the former residential school in Lower Post, B.C., but Webber said that school won't be part of the search by Yukon First Nations.

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