Saskatchewan

Star Blanket Cree Nation prepares to launch search of former Lebret Indian Industrial School

Survivors of the Lebret Indian Industrial School, family members and supporters took part in a smudge walk to cleanse the grounds of the former residential school.

Members of the Cree Nation spent Thursday conducting a smudge walk around the grounds of the former school

Members of Star Blanket Cree Nation take part in a smudge walk around the grounds of the former Lebret Indian Industrial School in Lebret, Sask., on Sept. 30, 2021. (Alexander Quon/CBC News)

With the a blazing sun above them, members of Star Blanket Cree Nation walked side by side around the grounds of the former residential school in Lebret, Sask., on Thursday. 

They came together to mark the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and to prepare as a community as they begin their own search for what happened to the children who never returned home from what was once known as the Lebret Indian Industrial School. 

Every member of the group — old and young — wore an orange shirt with Every Child Matters emblazoned on the front.

All followed the leader, who carried with him an old paint can with smoke pouring out of it. 

"The smudge walk was meant to purify the ground because we're not sure what we're going to find in the search. We do believe that we are going to find something," said Sheldon Poitras, the man in charge of the nation's efforts to examine the site of the residential school.

A man wears an Every Child Matters orange T-shirt
Sheldon Poitras is the Star Blanket Cree Nation project leader for the ground radar search of the former Lebret Indian Industrial School. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Star Blanket Cree Nation is one of many Indigenous groups across Canada planning to search the sites of former residential schools in the wake of a discovery earlier this year by Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C.

In May, the First Nation announced it had confirmation of a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, with preliminary findings indicating the remains of 215 children.

Poitras said Star Blanket Cree Nation will use ground-penetrating radar — the same technology used in Kamloops — to begin searching for unmarked graves at the site of the former school in Lebret, Sask., by the end of October. 

How ground-penetrating radar works

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Ground-penetrating radar is being used by Indigenous communities to pinpoint unmarked graves near former residential school sites. Here’s everything you need to know about the technology behind these discoveries.

The residential school went by many different names after it opened in 1884. At various times it was known as Qu'appelle, St. Paul's and Whitecalf. 

It didn't close its door until 1998, making it one of the last residential schools to shut its doors in Saskatchewan. 

However, it should be noted that it was not a federally run institution for its last years — administration was transferred to the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School Council in 1973. 

Many of the buildings that once constituted the school were demolished in 2000. 

Now all that stands is a gymnasium that is used by the Star Blanket Cree Nation as a gathering centre for activities. 

Chief Michael Starr says he looks forward to getting answers. 

"We have started that process in terms of engaging our people, engaging our elders over over this past summer," he told CBC News. 

"We did all the traditional protocols of a traditional feast, getting our knowledge keepers together and working to find a group, a company, that will come and work with us."

A member of Star Blanket Cree Nation carries a can used during a smudge walk at the former grounds of the Lebret Indian Industrial School on Sept. 30, 2021. (Alexander Quon/CBC News)

With the process finally about to begin it's still unclear what could be found at the site of the former school. 

The lessons and stories from the past are helping to inform where they look for unmarked graves. Grids will be laid out to assist the ground-penetrating radar teams. 

More than 55 acres on the nation's reserve will be examined while the Cree Nation has been able to secure agreements with some landowners as they prepare to search areas that were once operated by the residential school. 

Poitras says it may take years to complete the search, but it will be worth it if it means getting answers. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Quon is a reporter with CBC Saskatchewan based in Regina. After working in Atlantic Canada for four years he's happy to be back in his home province. He has previously worked with the CBC News investigative unit in Nova Scotia and Global News in Halifax. Alexander specializes in data-reporting, COVID-19 and municipal political coverage. He can be reached at: Alexander.Quon@cbc.ca.

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