'It's not going to be an easy task': Former residential school sites at Piikani Nation being investigated

The Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta will begin looking for evidence of unmarked graves belonging to residential school attendees.

Investigation set to begin later this month

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. The Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta will soon start looking for former residential school sites. (Library and Archives Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta will begin looking for evidence of unmarked graves belonging to residential school attendees.

The nation will be leading the work, and has appointed a group of eight to oversee the probe led by Carolyn Small Legs.

"It's not going to be an easy task," said Small Legs. "We are unsure of what we are going to find."

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has identified 139 residential schools across Canada — 25 of which were in Alberta.

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at: or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

However, that number excludes schools that operated without federal support, such as those run by religious orders or provincial governments. Some schools also underwent name changes, or were relocated.

There were four residential school sites at Piikani First Nation, and Small Legs said there could be other possible sites where graves are located.

"According to the stories that we are already gathering from members of the community, we do know those sites do contain [unmarked graves]," Small Legs said.

"But we'll wait to see for SNC-Lavalin, for their results."

SNC-Lavalin is providing ground radar equipment and expertise to the Piikani Nation.

The investigative work will begin later this month.

There is no timeline for how long it could take, but the nation said residents will be informed throughout the entire process.

"They are aware these sites will be investigated, and those members near the sites will be informed that there will be equipment and there will be trucks coming and going and they will be working on each of those sites for a specific timeframe," said Small Legs.

Small Legs said whatever comes from the investigation, the community will make decisions together about how to move forward and cope with trauma and triggers that could arise from the probe at Piikani Nation.

"We are looking to ensure that we have mental health and wellness supports put in place, because it's a very painful and emotional process for our community and our members — especially our former residential school members."

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Terri Trembath and Sarah Rieger