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Search turns up child remains at former residential school site

Star Blanket Cree Nation officials share discovery of a child’s jawbone at site of former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School.

LEBRET, SASK. - First Nations leaders pointed to the discovery of a child’s remains at the former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School site as confirmation of the stories told about suffering by Indigenous people at residential schools.

“Now we know it’s proof," said Chief Michael Starr of Star Blanket Cree Nation of preliminary results of the radar ground search of the Qu’Appelle residential school site, which were released at an update by leaders of Star Blanket Cree Nation in Lebret on Thursday.

Chief Starr said this was “what we kind of knew in our hearts, the way we were being told — but this is proof and it’s kind of significant that way. And we have to move together and have to help one another.”

The site of the former residential school, in the village of Lebret, had been subject to an extensive investigation and searches for unmarked grave sites over the past year. It is among several sites that have been subject to ground searches and investigations following the revelations of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site and also at Cowessess Cree Nation in 2021.

Star Blanket Cree Nation had struck an Indian Residential School Ground Search Project Team in partnership with the consulting firm AXIOM to search the Qu'Appelle residential school grounds for unmarked graves. They proceeded with the first phase of the project, with ground penetrating radar scans of the grounds happening in the fall and winter of 2022.

Officials at the news conference on Thursday reported that more than 2,000 confirmed “hits” or areas of interest had been uncovered by the ground penetrating radar. 

“Does that mean there are 2,000 unmarked graves? We don’t think so, because there’s anomalies,” said project director of operations Sheldon Poitras. “GPR can’t definitively say that ‘something.’ It could be a clump of gravel. It could be a piece of wood. Or it could actually be something. We don’t know yet.”

The most unsettling discovery came on Oct. 2 of last year, when on-site security discovered a bone fragment. 

File Hills Police then notified the RCMP Historical Case Unit in Regina, which then notified the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service. 

According to the official report from the provincial coroner, the bone fragment was from the jawbone of a child between ages four to six. It was estimated the bone fragment was approximately 125 years old, which would date back to around 1898. 

“This is physical evidence, physical proof of an unmarked grave, that’s been confirmed by both our File Hills Police Service and Sask Coroner’s office,” said Poitras.

The site in question had hosted three residential school structures. The first burned down in 1904, and was replaced by a second school that also burned down in 1932. The third and final school was built in 1935.

The bone fragment dates back to the era of the first school. It was found located on what Poitras described as the school’s front yard, an area with no cemetery or grave markings. That area is being described as an area of interest.

The news of the findings of a child’s bone fragment brought an emotional reaction from leaders on the stage.

“Lots of feelings this morning, all sorts of emotions of anger, hurt, pain, anguish. And a feeling that we want justice,” said Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron.

“A feeling that we want justice served to those individuals that are still living, breathing that have done those horrific crimes to our children… If there’s anything now that they can do, they can begin by bringing those individuals to justice.”

Chief Cameron called these and other sites “crime scenes. Crime scenes that must be addressed immediately.”

He also called on federal minister Marc Miller, who appeared virtually via Zoom call, to work with Star Blanket and other residential school sites to “build healing and wellness centres, what we need on our First Nation communities.”

“This discovery has changed everything,” said Chief Starr. “It’s changed the things that we are going to do. It’s changed our mindset, it’s changed our way of life in a way.”

He said they want the “governments to take accountability, the churches to take accountability, the police services to take accountability. That’s what we want from this. No longer do we want the things that oppressed us, the things that oppressed us and kept us down.”

Regarding the next steps for the site, the plan moving forward is to come up with a strategy for how to determine what is a stone, a piece of wood, gravel, or “actually something,” said Poitras.

He spoke of discussions with AXIOM of doing miniature core-drilling where they would send a core drill down an area of interest, collect a sample, and test it for DNA.

They do plan to go off site for the next phase; they want to do a scan of the seminary area and they want to work with land owners and get their permission. 

News of today’s findings have brought an immediate reaction from political leaders. 

In a post on Twitter Premier Scott Moe states:

“I was saddened to learn of the remains of a child at the site of a former residential school in Lebret, the Star Blanket Cree Nation has the full support of the government at this difficult time.

“Residential schools represent a dark period in Canada’s history - friends, neighbours, and family members attended the schools, and many of these folks and the ones they love are hurting today.

“We need to stand by them and help in every way we can.”

Opposition Leader Carla Beck stated the following:

“It’s with a heavy heart that we learn of the news today coming out of the ongoing investigation at Star Blanket Cree Nation.

“My heart goes out to the community and to all survivors and their families during these challenging times.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued this statement:

“I am profoundly saddened and disturbed to learn of the findings of a child’s remains and potential unmarked graves at the former Lebret (Qu’Appelle) residential school in Saskatchewan, which operated from 1884 to 1998.

“No child should ever have been stolen from their family. No child should ever have been robbed of their childhood, their culture, their community, or their language. No child should ever have faced the unthinkable abuse, loneliness, and fear they did at these so-called schools like the one in Qu'Appelle Valley. And no child should have ever spent their last moments suffering in a residential school and have their life stolen from them.

“As the horrifying truths of what happened at residential schools across the country continue to be uncovered, the Government of Canada will continue to support Star Blanket Cree Nation and Indigenous communities across the country as they navigate the difficult work of finding their loved ones and beginning or continuing their healing journeys – work which will be guided by Survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers, and experts. This work will take many forms and will evolve as further discoveries and the truth Survivors have long known about their missing sisters, brothers, and friends come to light. We will be there every step of the way."