Police officers from across the nation and across the border spent Thursday morning digging through the grass and dirt of a simulated hidden grave site to learn how to locate and recover human remains.
Offering a peek into what they call an introduction to forensic anthropology course, the RCMP are teaching coroners and police officers — in units including major crimes, forensic identification and cold and historical cases — how to find and recover human remains.
Using radar and metal detectors, officers were doing careful, scientific investigations on property owned by the City of Warman, according to Ernie Walker, the course instructor and a supernumary constable with the Saskatchewan RCMP.
"Garments, clothes, cell phones, needles … shotgun shells, I mean it's all there. It just doesn't smell as bad as it normally smells," Walker said.
Walker says he wasn't sure how often the courses would come in handy, but "there's a lot of missing persons everywhere, including in Saskatchewan, and invariably these kinds of files will ultimately involve them.
"We've had folks on this course for many years who have written us back and said, 'I took the course and three weeks later I had to do this, for real,'" he said.
Walker, who has 40 years of experience, says he has and almost every missing and murdered Indigenous women and girl case in the province.
The course has been going on for decades with classroom sessions mingled with the experiential aspects.
Sgt. Donna Zawislak with the RCMP historical case unit says the process to identify remains is slow and meticulous, not an overnight endeavour.
"They're troweling, they're brushing, they're taking photographs, they're taking the baby steps," she said.
Step-by-step, Zawislak says, they'll clear the work area, remove the dirt, start taking measurements as they find the evidence and expose as much as they can, all while taking notes and pictures to document the excavation.
"We want people to understand that they can watch a TV show and they find some remains, and they go there, they collect everything and they're done within their little time frame — that isn't the case here."
On Wednesday, officers had to investigate an area where imitation human remains had seemingly been scattered by animals.
In the past, Walker says, they've also done research to aid their processes by marking animal bones with various implements and weapons to see how they look, or by dropping a pig carcass into river courses with a tracker to see how bodies move in the water.