Next steps for Star Blanket Cree Nation after residential school ‘anomalies’ discovery

Click to play video: 'Next steps for Star Blanket Cree Nation after 2000 anomalies discovery announcement'
Next steps for Star Blanket Cree Nation after 2000 anomalies discovery announcement
The Star Blanket Cree Nation leadership announced over 2,000 anomalies at the former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School located near Lebret, Saskatchewan. Now, they will begin looking underground for more answers. – Jan 13, 2023

It was an emotional afternoon Thursday as Star Blanket Cree Nation (SBCN) announced their findings of at least 2,000 underground anomalies at the former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School located in Lebret, Sask.

Although it is not believed that all 2,000 anomalies are unmarked graves, organizers feel further investigation will prove some are. The discovery has brought with it a sense of vindication.

“Now we know, it’s proof,” said SBCN Chief Michael Starr. “What we kind (of) knew in our minds and hearts, what we were being told. This is proof.”

The anomalies were detected using ground-penetrating radar, a tool performed by Axiom Exploration Group Ltd. Now comes the tough task of sifting through the data and deciphering what might be a grave or just some sticks and stones. One strategy being considered is meniscal core drilling.

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In the early stages of the SBCN IRS Ground Search Project Team, they were invited to Cowessess First Nation to hear the trials and tribulations of their project and ground search. The Cowessess project team shared their knowledge, including what mistakes they learned from and the do’s and don’ts. After the visit, the SBCN project team felt they had the information necessary going forward.

Once we visited that site, we needed to pick a group that were subject matter experts in ground penetrating radar,” said project lead, Sheldon Poitras.

“We had a lot of interviews, a lot of different companies came and visited with the project team, with chief and council, and we eventually picked the group called Axiom … they’re very good to work with. They know their stuff and they’re very timely with their reports to us on things such as scanning data.”

Poitras said the project team plans to go off-site as they gather information, listening to stories from survivors and others who have heard stories from their loved ones. He said they will be working with landowners moving into different phases to do the scanning.

“Moving forward, we have to meet with these individuals, gain their permission, scan the area and see … what we can find,” said Poitras. “The plan moving forward with that is now we have to come up with a strategy on how we’re going to determine what’s a stone, what’s a piece of wood, what’s gravel or what might be actually something.”

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Poitras said there have been discussions with Axiom to do core drilling on a minuscule level where they pick an area of interest, send a core drill down, collect a sample, bring it up and test that sample for DNA.

“Axiom is capable of doing that. They just need a little bit of time to kind of get the technology together and get the analysis equipment together. And we can look at something probably once it warms up a little bit in the spring and summer,” said Poitras.

Click to play video: 'Search of former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School site finds over 2000 ‘anomalies’: Star Blanket Cree Nation'
Search of former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School site finds over 2000 ‘anomalies’: Star Blanket Cree Nation

Dr. Terence Clark, assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan department of archaeology and anthropology is also part of the Canadian Archaeological Association Working group on unmarked graves. He says they plan on reaching out to the SBCN to offer their experience.

Connor O'Donovan / Global Regina

“We’re hoping that we can help them in this process,” said Clark. “They’re just kind of starting and it’s a long process to go through all this material … we’re happy to do and we have done in many other instances. Either we’ve done the GPR ourselves or we’ve come in at a later stage and talked about an interpretation, what it might mean or next steps.”

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In October 2022, a member of the SBCN security team discovered a jawbone fragment of a child between the ages of four and six. The Saskatchewan Coroner’s Office analyzed the fragment, and it has been aged at about 125 years old, which goes back to 1898.

“This is physical evidence, physical proof of an unmarked grave that’s been confirmed by both File Hills Police Service and the (Saskatchewan) Coroner’s Office,” said Poitras. “So, a lot of next steps. There’s protocol, obviously, that we have to follow … we’re already in discussion on what to do with the remains.”

Connor O'Donovan / Global Regina

The project team is making those arrangements, choosing to respect the remains of the deceased. They will be meeting to engage with the community in moving forward.

The SBCN IRS Ground Search Project Team hopes they can receive further support and funding to carry out the planning of excavations to determine what exactly the 2,000 anomalies are.

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The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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