Muskowekwan First Nation looking for unmarked graves, closure around former residential school
Sonar being used to locate potential unmarked graves
Cynthia Desjarlais remembers murmurs and stories from her childhood from community members of the Muskowekwan First Nation about the unmarked graves of children around a former residential school.
It was in the early 1990s, when the now-abandoned building on the east-central Saskatchewan First Nation was still operating as a school, that water line construction unearthed human remains, resulting in elders temporarily halting the work, Desjarlais recalled.
"We reburied the grave, like covered them up again, and honoured them in that way," she told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition on Friday.
The former residential school closed in 1997 but may become a museum in the future. Desjarlais, a band councillor, said prior to the current building, which was built in 1931, there had been an older, wooden structure which burned down around 1913.
Even then, there were unmarked graves surrounding the area. Now, a team of archeologists, which includes members from Saskatchewan and Alberta, is out at Muskowekwan looking for more unmarked graves using sonar. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation helped co-ordinate the project.
When that work is done, a report will be submitted to the band.
"We're looking really forward to doing that and finding closure for those missing children or whomever they may be," she said.
"We don't know who they are right now."
The former residential school had hundreds of students from Muskowekwan and surrounding communities pass through it until the doors were closed.
About three years after it closed, more than 300 former students got together to decide the building's fate, Desjarlais said. A handful of people wanted to tear it down but the majority were in favour of its preservation, she added.
An actual physical structure that people could see and touch or walk through serves as a better, more visceral reminder of what went on behind the walls of residential schools, said Desjarlais.
"It's history and if we don't preserve it, then our young people will be forgetting it," she said.
It's a sentiment that was expressed at that gathering of former students.
"They told us 'no, leave it standing because it's proof these places existed and what our First Nations people went through.'"
With files form CBC Radio's The Morning Edition