Land near two former North Battleford-area residential schools being searched for unmarked graves

“We’re preparing for the worst,” says Neil Sasakamoose.

'We’re preparing for the worst,' says Neil Sasakamoose

The Thunderchild Residential School operated from 1901 to 1948 near Delmas, Sask. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

As Canada grapples with its dark history of residential schools, another search for unmarked graves of children forced to attend is underway in Saskatchewan.

Ground-penetrating radar is currently being used on land near the former Thunderchild Residential School near Delmas, about 32 kilometres northwest of North Battleford.

When that search ends in mid-July, another will begin on land around the former Battleford Industrial School near North Battleford, said Neil Sasakamoose, executive director of the Battleford Agency Tribal Chiefs (BATC).

"We're preparing for the worst," Sasakamoose said.

"There's people [buried] down by the river, we were told. There's people down by the school.  There's people in different places, children."

Sasakamoose said five separate locations to search for graves have been identified. 

In some cases, they've relied on the memories of survivors who are in their 80s, poring over maps and placing an "X" where they remember gravesites, or even seeing children being buried.

"We have some of the people — that actually dug the graves for some of those people — that are still alive and they've told us, 'right here is where I remember being,' " Sasakamoose said.

They have to understand what's there. There's children there and they're on these lands.- Neil Sasakamoose

Sasakamoose expects the radar search of the two residential schools to be the start of a second wave of discovery of unmarked residential school graves.

In May, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia announced the preliminary discovery of215 unmarked burial sites of children's remains near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

In June, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said that ground-penetrating radar identified 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. 

Sasakamoose said searching property on and around the North Battleford-area residential school sites is complicated because it is privately-owned land.

"It's really difficult because you don't know how to start. You don't know how to talk. You want to get access to the site, but you don't want to scare them," he said.

"But they have to understand what's there. There's children there and they're on these lands and they're not very deep."

The Roman Catholic Church operated the Thunderchild Residential School from 1901 to 1948 at Delmas, just outside the Thunderchild reserve. The Anglican Church operated the Battleford Industrial School from 1883 to 1914.

A photo of the original Thunderchild Residential School building. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

Death rates among children forced to attend the Thunderchild Residential School were up to five times higher than for non-Indigenous children attending provincial schools, according to Shattering the Silence, The Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan, a report written by the University of Regina's faculty of education.

"The accounts of some survivors...point to the practice of burying some of the dead children in a common grave on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River and the bones of others being discovered during excavation in the town itself," the report stated.

It listed typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia and jaundice among the causes of death.

There were also reports of abuse.

On July 3, five Catholic bishops in Saskatchewan announced they were restarting a stalled fundraising campaign for residential school survivors and their families. The announcement came in the wake of calls to boycott church services after CBC revealed the church had only raised less than $4 million of the $25 million it had pledged in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

"The easiest part of this whole process is the ground radar project," said Sasakamoose, adding that both sites should be completely searched by the end of August.

"The fallout is where the trouble is. And you're dealing with a lot of people. You're dealing with a lot of angry people, too, and you're dealing with relations between church and Indigenous people."

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

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.