The horrifying discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has spurred a similar investigation and search of the former Shubenacadie Residential School site in Nova Scotia.
Anthropologist Jonathan Fowler, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University and co-investigator Roger Lewis, the Curator of Mi’kmaq Cultural Heritage at the Nova Scotia Museum, began a ground-penetrating radar search of the former Shubenacadie residential school site.
“This work needs to happen now and it needs to be done thoroughly and it needs to be done rapidly without sacrificing quality,” said Fowler.
There has been a previous ground radar search of the Shubenacadie residential school grounds, but organizers from the Sipekne’katik First Nation say this search will be more exhaustive than the previous search effort and use better technology.
The federal government indicated there is funding available to support this ground search and investigation here and other sites across the country, but the Mi’kmaw community isn’t waiting for Ottawa to come to the table — there is a sense of urgency here to search for any new evidence of burial sites.
“My thing is that I hate when stuff gets stuck in the red tape and gets put off forever,” said Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack. “So we just took it, we wanted it to get going for all the Maritime communities and we just wanted it started right away.”
The Shubenacadie Residential School operated from 1929 until 1967 and was the only Indigenous residential school in the Maritimes.
Instances of abuse have been widely shared by residential school survivors like Alan Knockwood, who was at the site Saturday to participate in an Indigenous prayer ceremony and give the ground search team support.
“The education was through punishment and they tried to turn me into a white guy, a caucasian,” said Knockwood. “They succeeded in knocking the language out of me. I’m 68 years old and I can barely speak my own language.”
Demolished in 1986, the school site is now home to a plastic manufacturing company and occupied by adjacent agricultural lands.
However, the land itself still represents a place of trauma for the Mi’kmaw community, which is hurting and mourning following the apparent discovery of 215 children buried at the residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
Knockwood says his aunt attended the Shubenacadie facility and told him there were burial sites here.
“I remember coming up here with her and walking the grounds and having her point out, ‘they are buried here, they are buried over there, and buried over here,'” said Knockwood.
Knockwood says it’s important to exhaust all search options to know the full truth, saying the discovery in Kamloops is proof of what Indigenous people have been saying for years.
“It’s a vindication of all those words that we have been hearing, certainly, but nobody takes any comfort for being vindicated in that way,” said Knockwood. “But I’m glad that they are finally getting the word out there and finally listening, you know, the truth hurts.”
Sack says the community was eager to get the ground search underway but there’s a certain feeling of uneasiness about the work. It brings more trauma to the surface but it’s important to complete, to help understand the history of the residential school, according to Sack.
“Ideally for me, they come up with nothing,” said Sack. “Not because of a lack of effort but just because there is nothing here.”
Sack said the school and its history has been hanging over the heads of the community for too long, they want to close this chapter, and this investigation is part of that.
“For generations, we’ve been dealing with it and to this day we still are and we need to put it behind us,” said Sack. “We just want to be there for the community and help them get past this.”
The ground search will take several weeks to complete and is being led by the Sipekne’katik First Nation.