How ground-penetrating radar helped discover 751 unmarked graves at Marieval Indian Residential School

Seven-hundred fifty-one unmarked graves were found at site of former residential school near Regina. Here is how it happened.

Saskatchewan Polytechnic used groundbreaking technology to help Cowessess First Nation find answers

Cowessess First Nation says ground radar has detected 751 remains at site in Saskatchewan

2 years ago
Duration 9:17
Featured VideoFederation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron joins Power & Politics to discuss what happens next for Cowessess First Nation, and his call for the Pope to offer a formal apology for the Catholic Church's involvement in Residential Schools.

WARNING: This story contains details that could be distressing.

The burgeoning relationship between the Cowessess First Nation and Saskatchewan's technical college helped to establish the locations of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school. 

Larry Rosia, the president and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, told CBC's Canada Tonight on Wednesday that the school was humbled to be part of the project that confirmed information suspected by members of the Cowessess First Nation. 

"Our role in this project was really technology related," Rosia said. 

The technology — ground-penetrating radar — was deployed at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on May 31. 

Technical teams from Saskatchewan Polytechnic scanned around 44,000 square metres of area, with preliminary findings reporting 751 "recorded hits" at the site, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said during a news conference on Thursday morning. 

Each hit could could represent more than one set of remains. 

The radar work has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate, according to Delorme, and a verified number will be provided by technical teams in the coming weeks. 

Ground penetrating radar work began on June 2 and will be used in the future to aid the Cowessess First Nation in locating more unmarked gravesites its Chief Cadmus Delorme said. (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation)

The findings are a culmination of a relationship between Cowessess First Nation and Saskatchewan Polytechnic that began in 2018. 

Rosia said members of Saskatchewan Polytechnic's engineering technology faculty were helping to create digital mapping procedures to help 911 responder locate and respond to emergencies on the Cowessess First Nation quicker. 

The success of that project led to further discussions and the eventual deployment of the ground-penetrating radar technology. 

"One of the things that Saskatchewan Polytechnic prides itself is working with communities and industries and entrepreneurs on applied research," Rosia said.

"We took technology and applied it to a community problem that needed to be solved."

Funding was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

'This was a crime against humanity': FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron

2 years ago
Duration 1:25
Featured VideoReferring to the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School 140 kilometres east of Regina, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said he expects there will be similar discoveries made at other residential school sites. He called the residential school system 'a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations people.' (Credit: Cowessess First Nation)

Digging up the past, even if it is as recent as the Marieval Indian Residential School — which operated from 1899 to 1997 — can be difficult. 

The ground-penetrating radar technology made that burden easier. 

The cemetery on the site of the former residential school is delineated, but many of the graves are no longer marked. 

Delorme said on Thursday that there may have at one point been markers for some of the graves, but that the Roman Catholic church, which oversaw the cemetery, may have removed them at some point in the 1960s. 

The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area where Cowessess is now located, about 140 kilometres east of Regina. (CBC)

The unmarked graves in the cemetery may not all belong to children, Delorme said, but there are oral stories within Cowessess First Nation about both children and adults being there. 

Some of the remains may be people who attended the church or were from nearby towns.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

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

With files from CBC's Bryan Eneas and Canada Tonight