'We hope we don't find anything': Alberta First Nation begins ground-penetrating radar survey

Bigstone Cree Nation began the process to carry out a ground penetrating radar survey after testimonials from residential school survivors in the community. (Terry Reith/CBC - image credit)
Bigstone Cree Nation began the process to carry out a ground penetrating radar survey after testimonials from residential school survivors in the community. (Terry Reith/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As Mike Beaver looks out toward the shore of North Wabasca Lake in northern Alberta, his heart feels heavy.

Beaver, an elder of Bigstone Cree Nation, is also a residential school survivor who was forced to attend the Desmarais Residential School from 1949 until 1958.

On Tuesday, the First Nation about 320 kilometres north of Edmonton began a week-long ground-penetrating radar survey after interviews from survivors indicated potential burials of children from the school.

Beaver, who conducted ceremonies on Tuesday before and after the search began, said in an interview that the community hopes no graves are discovered.

"We hope we don't find anything," Beaver said.

"We're looking for the truth ... we're not living in the past, but we have to find out."

Omayra Issa/CBC
Omayra Issa/CBC

Survey conducted by institute at U of A

Two residential schools operated in the Wabasca-Desmarais area: the St. John's Residential School and the Desmarais Residential School (St. Martins).

Desmarais was operated by the Roman Catholic Church and was open from 1902 until 1973.

St. John's was run by the Anglican Church from 1902 until 1966.

The survey is being conducted by the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta.

The institute will initially investigate the St.Martin's area with plans to expand the investigation to St. John's.

Submitted by Silas Yellowknee
Submitted by Silas Yellowknee

Kisha Supernant, director of the institute and part of the team that is investigating, said the institute was approached by the First Nation last year.

"We listened to survivors and elders talk about the various areas that were of concern," Supernant said. "Once we had a chance to talk, we started developing a plan of how to approach an investigation."


Over the past year, the institute has conducted preliminary work such as the gathering of historic aerial photos and geographical information. The team also brought equipment to the area, including ground-penetrating radar devices.

Supernant said ground-penetrating radar doesn't work equally well in all environments.

"There are some specific considerations about what types of soil and types of land disturbance and things that have happened," she said.

Courtesy of Geoscan
Courtesy of Geoscan

The survey will likely conclude next Thursday, Supernant said.

"There was a root cellar area called 'potato hill' and some other areas near the school grounds that they [survivors] wanted investigated."

Other areas include cemeteries in the region.

"One thing we do know from St. Martin's is that in that earlier cemetery, there were [deceased] priests and nuns that were moved from that location to the new location," Supernant said.

"But as far as we can tell, none of the children who might have been there were moved and we don't exactly know where that cemetery is today, so we're trying to find it."

The results will require several months to analyze and interpret before they are submitted to Bigstone Cree Nation to determine next steps.

Respecting the wishes of elders 

Chief Silas Yellowknee said the community wanted to conduct its own search after Kapawe'no First Nation announced 169 potential graves were found at the site of a former residential school, Grouard Mission, about 370 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

As a former RCMP officer, Yellowknee said his first instinct was to seek justice by having any potential grave sites designated as crime scenes by the RCMP as active files.

"After the elders came and spoke with me they said, 'Chief, we kind of don't want to disturb the dead. We'd like to acknowledge that they are there ... We'll bless where the graves are at, if we do find any, and we'd just like to leave a monument in that area.'"

He said he told the elders he would respect their decision.

Beaver, 79, said the survey process has evoked memories of abuse during his time at residential school.

Supernant said the search can be triggering for community members and researchers and signals the need for continued mental health supports.

"When you're out walking over areas that might have graves of children," she said, "it can be very heavy and heartbreaking work, as well as when we come back to community and start talking about the results that we're finding.

"It is very challenging for everyone."

Survey begins as Pope visits 

Yellowknee said emotions have been heightened and faith has been shaken with the search beginning close to Pope Francis's visit to Alberta, which begins Sunday.

"Our churchgoers ... people that really believe in our Catholic faith, are now almost wondering where are we going to go?"

Asked if he would travel to Edmonton to see the Pope, Beaver said: "I wouldn't go next door to see him."

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

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.