Star Blanket Cree Nation begins ground-penetrating radar searches at site of former residential school

More than 55 acres on the Star Blanket Cree Nation reserve will need to be examined on land once operated by the residential school.

The search for potential graves could take up to 3 years, says Chief Michael Starr

How ground-penetrating radar works

4 months ago
Duration 4:50
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. 4:50

Star Blanket Cree Nation is beginning the journey of searching the site of a former residential school that many of its members were forced to attend.

There has already been months of preparation and ceremony. The grounds of the former Lebret Indian Industrial School were purified by a smudge walk carried out on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. 

"We are hoping to find our relatives that didn't make it home and we believe that there will be some remains found," said Star Blanket Cree Nation Chief Michael Starr.

"We want to do it in an honourable way, and we want to do it in a respectful way, and we want to take care of them, look after them, and we believe by doing so their spirit can feel more comfortable in leaving this area."

All that remains of the school is a gymnasium in the village of Lebret, Sask. It now serves as a gathering centre for the nation's activities. 

The school went by many different names after it opened in 1884, including Qu'appelle, St. Paul's and Whitecalf. 

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

In its final years the school was not a federally run institution — administration was transferred to the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School Council in 1973. 

WATCH| Star Blanket Cree Nation, Sask. honours the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Now, using ground-penetrating radar, Star Blanket Cree Nation will begin looking for children who never returned home. 

Starr said he's confident remains will be found, but that it could take up to three years to get the final results.

"It has been very emotional for myself and for our team and all our community," he said.

"We've had tears, we've had stories, we've had laughter as well, making sure that healing continues from that perspective."

Renita Starr-Whitecap's family has a lot of history at the school.

She said her father was there when it was called the Lebret Indian Industrial School. First Nations kids were forced to attend residential schools at that time.

"It was very, very difficult because my dad, he never really spoke of it and we only learned of it when he talked to my mom," she said. "I can imagine all the hurt that he was going through."

Crew members prepare the machine that will perform the ground-penetrating radar searches on Star Blanket Cree Nation. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Starr-Whitecap then attended the school in the early 1970s when it was called the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School. Her oldest son then attended when it was called White Calf Collegiate.

"It bought a lot of, I guess, shame just knowing what has occurred over time," she said.

She hopes the search will help families and community members find healing and closure, as difficult as the process may be.

"I really believe in my heart that we'll get through this together and, not only us, but different First Nations that have  residential schools on their reserves, that they can heal in a good way as well," she said.

"I'm just grateful that we had that guidance and that strength from our elders to continue on so we can start this process."

Star Blanket Cree Nation is one of many Indigenous groups across Canada that is in the process of searching former residential school sites 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.

Shledon Poitras, the Cree Nation's project leader for the search, previously told CBC News that lessons and stories from the past will help inform the search. 

The band has consulted with elders to hear the stories they were told about who may be buried there. 

More than 55 acres on the reserve will need to be examined. Star Blanket has been able to secure agreements with some landowners as it prepares to search areas once operated by the residential school. 

Grids will be laid out to assist the ground-penetrating radar teams. 

Part of the preparation involves laying out grids on the areas to be searched. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) has helped co-ordinate the search efforts.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said he hopes to find bothtruth and justice. He also demanded accountability from government and religious leaders for the abuses that happened at residential schools.

"These things need to be fixed. They need to be rectified and those people need to be held accountable and justice needs to be served," he said.

"We expect all those individuals to do the right thing and work directly with our First Nations on this."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has also 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.

With files from Cory Coleman