Keeseekoose First Nation in Sask. announces 54 'hits' in ground-penetrating radar surveys at former schools

Ground-penetrating radar survey efforts at former residential school sites around Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan found 54 potential gravesites, the community announced Tuesday. 

2 residential schools operated in or near Keeseekoose First Nation

Ground-penetrating radar survey results from residential school sites near Keeseekoose First Nation were announced on Tuesday. While not a residential school survivor herself, Mary Sarah Genaille recalled difficult memories of residential school children she knew in her youth. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Ground-penetrating radar survey efforts at former residential school sites around Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan found 54 potential gravesites, the community announced Tuesday.

At a news conference hosted in the community, about 235 kilometres northeast of Regina, officials said they searched locations in Keeseekoose based on oral history shared by survivors and knowledge keepers.

"Today we are announcing that there were 54 hits," Ted Quewezance, project manager for the search, said on Tuesday.

"Forty-two were found on the Fort Pelly site and 12 were found at St. Philips."

Two residential schools operated in or near Keeseekoose First Nation, near Kamsack, Sask., from 1895 to 1969.

Fort Pelly school was founded in 1895 by Rev. Father Jules Decorby of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and operated until 1913. That school received federal funding in the early 1900s until it closed, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Commission's website said. 

  • 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.

The first St. Philips residential school was opened in 1928 and used until 1962, when another building was opened and used until 1969. The St. Philips residential school was also operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. 

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation's memorial shows two students died at the Fort Pelly school and two students died at the St. Philips school.

Pauline Pelly, far right, holds her daughter Ella during a public event at the Keeseekoose School gymnasium on Tuesday. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Results, but no closure

Chief Lee Kitchimonia said growing up in Keeseekoose, he'd heard the stories about the schools from his family and community members.

Tuesday's news conference didn't bring closure for the community yet, he said, because winter weather hampered the community's search efforts.

"All this has done is open up the door for more questions. Are there more graves out there? We don't know that," Kitchimonia said.

"It's going to be a very tough time in our community, knowing we have unmarked graves in our community, where we walk every day, drive every day. We passed by them, never realizing that there were graves there."

Kitchimonia called for accountability for the parties responsible for leaving the unmarked graves behind, though he didn't know who was responsible for them yet.

He noted the graves could belong to children who were murdered and hold evidence of crimes committed, but those were answers the community didn't have yet.

WATCH | 54 potential gravesites found near former Sask. residential school sites: 

54 potential gravesites found near Sask. residential schools

12 months ago
Duration 2:00
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Ground-penetrating radar has located 54 potential burial sites near the grounds of two former residential schools in eastern Saskatchewan.

Kitchimonia said he wanted to see records related to the schools to provide families with answers.

"I don't know if we'll ever get closure. We're going to pray for closure. I pray for closure every day, but I don't know if I'll ever see it in my lifetime," he said on Tuesday.

"Maybe in my children's lifetime, my grandchildren's lifetime, they'll find out what happened. But the further we get from the actual event, those facts seem to be blurred the further we go."

The Missionary of Oblates of Mary Immaculate operated 48 residential schools in Canada, including the Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess, where ground-penetrating radar survey recorded 751 hits that could be unmarked or unidentified grave sites last year.

The organization was also responsible for operating the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., where a ground-penetrating radar survey recorded 215 hits that could be the remains of children near the former residential school there.

Those sites still need to be excavated in order to confirm the findings, but the anthropologist who led the search at Kamloops noted many of the disturbances also carried signatures of burial sites.

The oblates previously made a "commitment to transparency" to disclose all records related to residential schools.

Records, story will be shared: project manager

Quewezance said the community was working to create partnerships with the local parish and archdiocese to share any records they may have for the community related to residential schools.

The project manager said forgiveness will be a hard thing for the community to achieve — many people were uncomfortable and even angry when they were told of the 54 gravesites.

Ted Quewezance, project manager for the search, announces the discovery of 54 potential gravesites. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

But Quewezance said many saw it as an opportunity to move forward and start healing from the damage caused by the schools.

Elders and knowledge keepers, who directed the survey efforts, will guide the community in its healing process, Quewezance said.

The First Nation will also provide mental health and healing support to families, who will be taking charge of maintaining the 54 potential gravesites discovered in survey efforts.

The community will work to identify the people buried, Quewezance said. Keeseekoose school will also become host to a virtual museum where any records the community finds could be placed and seen by all, he said.

Born from broken treaty promises

Saskatchewan's Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson hails from Keeseekoose and attended Tuesday's announcement. 

"It's a very sombre day. You don't know whether to clap sometimes or you sit there shaking, because you hope to have the strength to talk about these things," she said. 

While she didn't attend residential school, Culbertson said her mother and grandmother both did. Her father's last name was changed at residential school and she acknowledged those who lost their language or cultures at the institutions. 

She said through her work she educates others about treaties and about residential schools in particular, which she said were "born from broken treaty promises." 

"Instead of getting a schoolhouse and a teacher on every reserve, we got residential schools because they could assimilate us, they could take our culture and our language. They took lives and they didn't care," she said. 

Each marker indicates one 'hit' recorded by ground-penetrating radar during a survey conducted on Keeseekoose First Nation lands. Leaders indicated on Tuesday survey sites were guided by oral history from survivors and community knowledge keepers. (Cory Herperger/Radio-Canada)

Culbertson said she still sees barriers to accessing information about residential schools as she does her work. 

She was happy to see Donald Bolen, archbishop of the Regina diocese, in attendance at Tuesday's announcement. 

Bolen acknowledged the survivors in attendance and the tense emotions they would be feeling given the nature of the announcement. 

"We have been working over the past months, meeting regularly and reflecting on how the church can walk in solidarity with you," he said. 

"We are profoundly sorry for the role that Catholics played in the schools and the abuse that you suffered and the racism and the intergenerational trauma. We are sorry, profoundly sorry."

Bolen said the church is reminded repeatedly that apologies are only a beginning and acknowledged the steps that need to be taken need to show real action.

He said survivors have taken the lead on that front and a working group has written a letter to chief Kitchimonia to discuss some of the areas where the church can help, particularly in terms of records.

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.


Bryan Eneas

Reporter, Indigenous Storytelling

Bryan Eneas is a journalist from the Penticton Indian Band currently based in Regina, Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC, he reported in central and northern Saskatchewan.