'We want to heal peacefully:' Families of survivors gather for Delmas residential school search

·4 min read

Content Warning: Details in this story may be upsetting to readers.A ground-penetrating radar search has begun to lift the secrecy clouding Delmas Indian Residential School.

The families of the residential school's survivors — spanning generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren — looked on as SNC-Lavalin started a long search for lost loved ones on Saturday morning. Others smudged and followed behind the work as it took place.

"We opened it up the public because it was kept a secret for so long," said Karen Whitecalf, who is Battleford Agency Tribal Chiefs' (BATC) project lead on the searches. "Our people knew that our children lay on these grounds. But it was kept a secret. We shouldn't keep secrets anymore."

"We want to heal peacefully."

Delmas residential school, also known as Thunderchild or St. Henri, was run by Roman Catholic Church Oblate missionaries and was in operation from 1901 to 1948, when it was destroyed by a fire and never rebuilt, according to Shattering the Silence, a history of residential schools in Saskatchewan published by the University of Regina's faculty of education.

Overcrowding was common there, along with illness ranging from typhoid, peritonitis, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, jaundice and pneumonia, according to Shattering the Silence.

The site is northwest of North Battleford. The search continued throughout the weekend and will go on intermittently and possibly into December, Karen Whitecalf said. There's roughly six areas to be searched, she said.

Whitecalf said an oral history indicated there was a graveyard near the school, but the site had since been converted into a residence and a hay field.

The property owners, Doug Montgomery and Donna McBain say learning about the site was upsetting, but they're fully committed to assisting the searches.

While there are reports of deaths at the school, there aren't firm estimates as to how many may be detected, Karen Whitecalf said.

Sweetgrass First Nation Chief Lori Whitecalf said recently finding the gravestone of her great uncle in a graveyard about one kilometre away from the school helped prompt the searches. He was a 13-year-old when oral history from roughly four families indicates he was beaten to death at the school, she said.

There's possibly other remains in the area, she said.

BATC CEO Neil Sasakamoose says that breadth between possible sites makes searching difficult.

Storm Night of Saulteaux First Nation's grandparents and their siblings attended the school. She said she came for her grandmother, who is in a care home and was unable to attend.

"It's a really intense feeling. I cried a lot already. It's a lot to understand what happened here," she said. "It hits home knowing our family went here."

She's pleased that the searches were open to public, saying it will help bring closure that's needed for those affected. That means "to bring the kids home, and to pray for them and to smudge for them," she said.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and BATC Senator Jenny Spyglass, who is a member of Mosquito Grizzly Bear’s Head Lean Man First Nation, attended the school. She was born in 1941, and would have been a four-year-old in November when she was taken there, she said.

"This is where they took my culture away. They took my language away from me. They took that love away from my mum," she said.

" ... This is where my little brother passed away. He was only (a) four-year-old. They starved him to death. When they put some food for you on the table, if you don't like it, you're going to starve."

As the families of survivors looked on and searches continued in the nearby field, she took pride as she spoke her language and cherished what the school failed to take.

"I'm proud of who I am. I got my culture back. I speak my language, and the great Creator, he blesses me everyday."

There are a number of resources available for survivors and those seeking emotional support in the wake of recent events. The 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419.

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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