DELMAS, SASKATCHEWAN - The search for graves of those who attended the former Delmas Indian residential school site has begun.
On Saturday morning, the search for unmarked graves began with the use of ground-penetrating radar on the grounds of the former Thunderchild/St. Henri Indian Residential School which burned down in 1948.
The procedure was conducted by SNC-Lavalin and that was expected to run until 5 p.m. Saturday, and then continue again Sunday.
According to Neil Sasakamoose of Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs, the plan is to finish grid one at the actual residential school site over the weekend and look at the data Monday. The plan is to then finish grids two and three at the residential school site, and then move on to potential sites located against buildings inside the town.
Sasakamoose explained to reporters that the process of finding graves from the Delmas residential school is a complicated one. The sites they wish to search are on several different locations spanning more than a kilometre.
There are six sites identified within the community of Delmas itself that they want to search, and then a couple more located north of Highway 16. Reporters were brought to one site of interest: a cemetery which includes the grave and headstone of Achenam, of whom a descendant is current Sweetgrass Chief Lori Whitecalf.
It was explained that the finding of Achenam’s headstone about six weeks before got their attention. Achenam had died in 1910 at age 13 while attending the residential school. It was explained that according to oral histories handed down through the generations, Achenam died due to abuse suffered at the school.
What was unexpected was the location of Achenam’s grave at this particular cemetery, located about a kilometre north of the former residential school.
It “didn’t add up,” said Sasakamoose, and that sparked interest in searching the area for more graves.
The thinking is there could be several unmarked graves in the vicinity of Achenam’s headstone. The plan is to search the vicinity starting in August. Another site they want to search is located down the road to the north of the residential school.
What it means is that the ground-radar search for unmarked graves will be an extensive one covering a vast amount of land and locations between Delmas and the North Saskatchewan River to the north. It will also not be a continuous process, with the radar search continuing on and off as the data is collected.
After work around Delmas is done, Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs wants to search the Battleford Industrial School site on the Government House Ridge for more potential unmarked graves there. But they may not be able to get to that this year, due to the amount of work needed to search the Delmas area.
“It’s going to take us a year. We’re not going to do this in a day,” said Sasakamoose.
At the moment, the search is focusing on the stretch of land located within Delmas just south of Highway 16, on the grounds where the former residential school was located.
That land is now owned by Donna McBain and Doug Montgomery. They had purchased the property a couple of years ago, not realizing it was potentially the location of several unmarked graves.
They had been approached early on by Karen Whitecalf, the Indian Residential Schools Searches Project lead for Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs, and Whitecalf described them as “more than willing to help us” with the searches.
Montgomery told reporters that when he first started hearing the stories about the land, it was “a little bit scary. You know, living in a graveyard is not anybody’s cup of tea, I’m sure.”
At the news conference Saturday, McBain pledged they would “do whatever they can to find answers and try and set a few things straight.” Montgomery said he was “grateful to help in any way to find what may or may not be out there.”
The start of the ground radar search at the Delmas site brought out the emotion from several of those who spoke to reporters at Delmas Saturday.
Senator Jenny Spyglass of Mosquito Grizzly Bear’s Head Lean Man First Nation recounted to reporters she was taken away from her family to the residential school.
“This is where they took my culture away,” said Spyglass. “They took my language away from me, they took that love away from my mom. A two- or three-year-old girl would love to have their mom with them every day every morning, feeding them, loving them. I didn’t have that growing up. I missed my mom’s hugs … we were a happy family until they took me away.”
Spyglass’s brother had passed away while attending the residential school, and she is now searching for answers about where he may be buried.
Sweetgrass Chief Whitecalf recounted several of her family members had attended the residential school.
She said it was “really challenging” for her to be there that day, “but I have to be here for those people that weren’t brought home.”
“This is Canada’s truth, this is what we’ve lived through,” said Whitecalf. “This is a secret that Canada wanted to keep buried.”
Chief Wayne Semaganis of Little Pine First Nation expressed wider concerns, over what he described as the “relationship that has always failed us — the relationship with the government of Canada.”
“But when tomorrow comes will things be better?” asked Semaganis. He explained that as a chief, he struggled to find Canada at the table with the chiefs.
“Ten years I’ve gone to Ottawa expecting Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau to come and sit with the Treaty chiefs and attend to business. I’ve seen nothing but neglect from Prime Minister Trudeau. If he’s going to be the leader of Canada, he needs to come and meet the leaders of the First Nation people and come and talk about business and strengthen the relationship. We cannot afford to have a tomorrow that repeats what happened in the past. That has to change.”