Lac La Ronge Indian Band to search for Sask. residential school graves this week

The First Nation will scour an old cemetery site that stood behind the long-destroyed Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School with ground-penetrating radar technology, the latest Saskatchewan Indigenous group to do so.

First Nation to explore old cemetery site in community of La Ronge, Sask.

The Lac La Ronge Indian Bandwill begin searching an old cemetery site associated with the Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School for unmarked graves on Saturday using ground-penetrating radar technology. (courtesy Tammy Cook-Searson)

The old cemetery behind the long-destroyed Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School sits on a dip in a hill just west of downtown La Ronge, Sask.

While the site has some headstones and markings here and there, it became quite overgrown over the years until a contractor recently hired by Lac La Ronge Indian Band began clearing it out, says Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. 

"Before we cleaned it up, even my own family members, like my own children, didn't realize that the cemetery was there," Cook-Searson says.

"Now everybody knows."

Cook-Searson marked up this map to indicate where the old cemetery site associated with the Lac Lac Ronge Indian Residential School sits in La Ronge, Sask. (Google Maps/Tammy Cook-Searson)

On Saturday, Lac La Ronge Indian Band will begin scouring the cemetery site with ground-penetrating radar in search of unmarked graves associated with the residential school. The work is expected to continue on Sunday.

The band — the largest First Nation in Saskatchewan, with over 11,000 members — will kick things off Friday with a feast and blessing of the equipment. 

"It's difficult work, but it's something that has to be done," Cook-Searson said of the search. 

Elder Tom Sanderson Sr. helped clear the site for the search work, said Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. (courtesy Tammy Cook-Searson)

Operated by the Anglican Church of Canada, the residential school opened in 1907 and operated until it burned down in 1920, and was replaced with a new school called All Saints.

"The new building was poorly constructed, cold in winter and overcrowded," according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. "Parents were also unhappy with the way the school was run."

Crowding, ventilation, diet issues

The school had a bad sewage system, prompting one federal government agent in 1925 to remark that "when the wind blows from the east, the smell from this quarter is awful," according to research conducted by the University of Regina

In July 1937, during another inspection, the school's ventilation, crowding and food menu came under scrutiny, with an agent writing that students were being fed "only … Irish bread and lard, oatmeal in the mornings and a little peanut butter once a week."

Children who were sick with tuberculosis bunked with healthy students in the same dormitory, the agent added.

The initial Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School burned down and was replaced by this building, pictured in 1928. (R.D. Davidson/Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada/PA-020295)

The school closed in 1947 after two boys deliberately set it ablaze, according to the university's research. Students were either moved to the Gordon's Indian Residential School near Punnichy, Sask., or the residential school in Prince Albert, "where a former military barracks was converted into a residential school," the national centre wrote.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates, based on death records, at least 4,100 children died at residential schools across Canada, and that many were likely buried in unmarked and untended graves at schools or school-related cemeteries. 

The true number is likely much higher. Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the commission, has said as many as 25,000 children may have died at the schools.

Survivors guiding search efforts

Cook-Searson said elders have visited the Lac La Ronge Indian Residential school cemetery site, which is very large, and are helping the band pinpoint where exactly to search. 

"It's hard for the survivors to speak," she said, but "we need more survivors to come out and talk."

Cook-Searson is a third-generation survivor. Her grandparents went to the Lac La Ronge school, while she and her parents went to the school in Prince Albert. 

Students from Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School carry wood in this undated photo from the 1920s. 'Nobody really talked about what happened until more of us started to open up more' about their experiences at residential schools, says Cook-Searson. (Anglican Church of Canada archives (P7538-233))

"But nobody really talked about what happened until more of us started to open up more, once the residential school settlement agreement was signed with the federal government."

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's announcement in May that it found unmarked burial sites at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site in B.C. led to discussions about searching the grounds in La Ronge, about 340 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, Cook-Searson said. 

Lac La Ronge Indian Band planned to invite Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation, which has already conducted its own search and announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. It's the largest such discovery to date in Canada. 

Lac La Ronge Indian Band has reached out to the local Anglican bishop to help with the search efforts, Cook-Searson said.

"He said anything that we need, they'll help us and support us," she said. 

The cemetery site is on a hill west of downtown La Ronge, Sask. (Tammy Cook-Searson)


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

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