Unmarked graves: after testimonies, technology | Native Residential Schools

Ground-penetrating radar, also called penetrating radar, looks like a lawnmower from a distance. It allows you to detect objects or structures that are hidden under the surface of the ground, without having to dig. It is used, for example, in the construction industry to locate buried pipes, in archeology to find forgotten buildings, or in forensic science to study crime scenes.

When conditions are right, ground penetrating radar can help locate unmarked graves around residential schools.

the [radar pénétrant]it’s far from magical and precise, for having used it a lotsays anthropologist Adrian Burke, from the University of Montreal, who is working with the Cree community of Chisasibi, in northern Quebec, to conduct research on the island of Fort George where a Catholic boarding school and a Anglican boarding school for Natives.

The purpose of using a [radar pénétrant]is not to excavate, to see if it is possible to see something before excavating, because the excavation stage is already more difficult and more complex in the sense that it raises a lot emotionshe explains.

Locate the graves

John Elliott, a survivor of the Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, practices using penetrating radar technology during a training session.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Bobby Hristova

Among its calls to action published in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommends identifying and protecting places where children may have been buried and informing families of the burial place of their children. A task that is far from easy.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, there were almost no regulations on cemeteries and, according to the TRC, most residential school cemeteries were established informally. Several boarding schools also moved or were demolished, leaving behind disused cemeteries, now overgrown with brush. There are also unmarked graves in cemeteries that still exist.

And this is where ground penetrating radar can come into play.

We can pass through the asphalt without any problem. We used it [le géoradar] to Montreal several times to locate buildings under the asphalt, but also possible graves around churches. »

A quote from Adrian Burke, anthropologist

The device locates these underground structures by projecting radar waves into the ground. These waves bounce back to the surface in different ways depending on the electrical properties of the substances they touch. This echo is picked up by an antenna.

When the ground has been disturbed, for example by the digging of a grave, a variation can sometimes be detected using penetrating radar. Other types of structures can also be detected, such as rocks, tree stumps, groundhog holes, etc.says archaeologist Kisha Supernant in a video on using remote sensing techniques to locate unmarked graves prepared for the Canadian Archaeological Association.

Director ofInstitute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, Kisha Supernant notably supervised ground penetrating radar work near the Saint-Bernard boarding school in Grouard, Alberta.

The ideal situation is one where the contrast is very marked between the electrical properties of two materials, for example, between the wood of a coffin and the air it contains, or between the water content of a remains and the dry land that surrounds it. Under these circumstances, a strong signal can be obtained.

No certainty

Two women look at vintage photos on a commemorative banner.

Marie-Louise Chakapash (left) and Molly Pashagumskum (right) at a rally at the site of one of the former residential schools on the island of Fort George in northern Quebec.

Photo: Courtesy of George E. Pachano / T.Philiptchenko

However, the graph generated by the georadar is far from having the precision of an X-ray. You can’t see bones there, for example.

% uniquement avec l’aide du radar pénétrant, mais qu’il existe des méthodes utilisées par les archéologues depuis longtemps qui nous permettent de penser avec confiance que ce que nous voyons sont des sépultures”,”text”:”On nous demande souvent comment nous savons que ce que nous voyons est une sépulture et non autre chose. Le fait est qu’il est impossible de le savoir à 100% uniquement avec l’aide du radar pénétrant, mais qu’il existe des méthodes utilisées par les archéologues depuis longtemps qui nous permettent de penser avec confiance que ce que nous voyons sont des sépultures”}}”>We are often asked how we know what we see is a grave and not something else. The fact is, it’s impossible to know 100% with the help of penetrating radar alone, but there are methods that have been used by archaeologists for a long time that allow us to think with confidence that what we see are gravessays Kisha Supernant.

It is also possible that a burial is present, but that the georadar produces no signal, specifies Adrian Burke. This is why it is useful to corroborate ground penetrating radar information with other remote sensing methods: aerial images using various wavelengths, remote sensing by laser or magnetometry, for example.

Another disadvantage of this technique: it is extremely time-consuming. For example, on the outskirts of the former boarding school in Grouard, Alberta, it took six days of ground penetrating radar work to survey about one acre of land, the size of two NHL rinks.

To avoid wasting time and money, it is therefore absolutely necessary to have an idea in advance of where to search. Interviews with former residents and their families, or with neighbors, are crucial, as is the consultation of archival documents.

Archive photo of the Grouard Indian boarding school.

The Roman Catholic Church operated the Grouard Indian Residential School, also known as Mission St. Bernard, from 1894 to 1961.

Photo: Deschâtelets-NDC Archives

The most convincing results are obtained in historic cemeteries or already known burial sites. It’s no secret that people are buried there, it’s rather that we no longer find the markers, the little crosses are gone, explains Adrian Burke. Yes, there may have been burials not registered by the priests or the nuns. But the reality is that many of the deaths and burials were marked and listed somewhere.

In Grouard, testimonies and the consultation of the parish archives made it possible to concentrate the work in four places: the local cemetery, the surroundings of the church, the residence of the nuns and the root cellar.

A total of 169 potential unmarked graves were found using ground penetrating radar. All had the expected size, general shape and depth. They were classified into three categories: possible, probable and very probable, according to the level of clarity of the signal and corroboration by other techniques.

Unsurprisingly, the cemetery is the place where the greatest number of potential burials has been located, namely 8 very probable and 107 probable. Near the residence of the nuns, 22 probable graves were found. The other 32 signals were categorized as possible burials.

To dig or not to dig

A group photo in a community hall.

In a local consultation conducted in November 2021, a majority of former Fort George Island boarding school survivors present spoke out in favor of georadar excavations.

Photo: Courtesy of Fort George Residential School organizing committee / Reggie D. Tomatuk

The ground penetrating radar detects anomalies underground. But the only way to know for sure that these are burials is to dig, a heartbreaking decision among Indigenous communities whose children attended residential schools.

Some people wish to leave the dead alone. Others insist that the bodies be exhumed and identified, for example by means of DNA techniques, so that the families finally know the truth.

Adrian Burke gives the example of the Catholic boarding school in Fort George, in Nord-du-Québec, where Cree children from the region lived, but also Inuit, Atikamekw and children from other provinces. These people want to bring their children back to their community, to their nationhe points out.

A banner bearing thousands of names is unfurled.

A huge banner bearing the names of children who died in residential schools was unfurled during the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

Photo: APTN

To those who doubt the very existence of the remains of Aboriginal children around the residential schools, on the pretext that none have yet been found, he responds in a pithy manner, relying among other things on the thousands of testimonies received by the TRC: % sûr. Est-ce que ces enfants ont été abusés? C’est absolument certain.”,”text”:”On n’a pas encore trouvé de corps parce qu’on n’a pas excavé, mais je peux assurer ces gens que si on se met à excaver, si c’est ce que veulent les communautés, on va trouver les corps de ces enfants et que ce sera très difficile. […] Est-ce qu’il y a des corps? 100% sûr. Est-ce que ces enfants ont été abusés? C’est absolument certain.”}}”>We haven’t found any bodies yet because we haven’t excavated, but I can assure these people that if we start excavating, if that’s what the communities want, we’ll find the bodies of these children and it will be very difficult. […] Are there any bodies? 100% safe. Have these children been abused? It is absolutely certain.

But according to him, it will still be a long time before families finally know where their children have been buried. : des années et des années. Il va y avoir du médicolégal. Il pourrait y avoir des poursuites criminelles”,”text”:”Il y a encore un immense travail d’archives à faire pour savoir qui était où. […] Il faudra identifier les restes, faire [l’analyse de ] l’ADN. Ce sera très long: des années et des années. Il va y avoir du médicolégal. Il pourrait y avoir des poursuites criminelles”}}”>There is still a huge archival work to be done to find out who was where. […] It will be necessary to identify the remains, to [l’analyse de ] DNA. It will be very long: years and years. There will be forensics. There could be criminal chargeshe lists.

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