A child’s jawbone along with 2,000 potential unmarked gravesites have been discovered at a former Indian Residential School
- By Kerry Benjoe
Secret rooms and underground tunnels are slowly being uncovered by those searching the grounds of the Indian Residential School located in the Village of Lebret.
On Thursday, the Star Blanket Cree Nation released its initial findings, which includes more than 2,000 points of interest as well as the discovery of a 125-year-old jawbone belonging to an unidentified child between the ages of four and six years old.
“The truth of what had actually happened to our people, our ancestors, this is evidence now,” said Chief Michael Starr. “As leaders of our nations we have to use this information now and say, ‘This is proof.’ Because a lot of times nobody believed there were actually remains on this site or any other site.”
The residential school located in Lebret operated from 1884 until 1997 and was Canada’s last residential school to close.
During its 114 years of operation, three schools were built on the site and were known by different names including the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, St. Paul’s High School, the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School and Whitecalf Collegiate.
Many simply refer to it as Lebret.
Sheldon Poitras, project manager for the Star Blanket Cree Nation Indian Residential School (SBCN IRS) Ground Search Project, released his team's findings in the old residential school gymnasium, which has been repurposed to serve as a community hall.
“I’m tired,” said Chief Starr after the announcement. “I feel better today, now that we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to announce the remains that we did find, so that portion was very emotional and hard on our council and our IRS team.”
He said the discovery was made shortly after Orange Shirt Day activities on Oct. 2 by a member of the on-site security team. However, it was decided to wait until the age of the bone was verified before releasing the information to the public.
During the announcement, a small, bright-blue box adorned with gifts of beaded jewelry and tobacco sat on the table in front of Chief Starr. It was later revealed the box contained the child’s jawbone.
Experts estimate the death to have occurred around 1898.
The kindergarten-aged child would have attended the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, which burnt down in 1904. A second school was built in1906, but it too, burnt down in 1932. The third school, built of brick, opened in 1936 and remained in place until it was demolished in 2000.
The ground search began more than a year ago and although the SBCN IRS ground search team worked with technology experts, it was Mother Nature that yielded the biggest piece of evidence.
Poitras said they met with other ground search teams including the one at Cowessess where they were told to pay attention to the gophers.
“We really didn’t know what to think about that, we just said, ‘Oh OK,’ ” he said.
As it turned out the tip paid off.
The jawbone was located on the surface near a gopher hole at one of the areas of interest.
“We needed a little helping hand from the gophers to make the discovery,” said Poitras. “It’s peculiar and kind of amazing it happened like that, but I’m glad it did.”
He is not only the project manager, he's also a former student of the school he's now in charge of searching.
“When I look at all the areas of interest and I think back, we used to walk all over those areas play sports and do extra-curricular activities...where there might be potential grave sites,” he said. “It brings a different realization. It’s a bigger impact when you realize there’s that kind of history here.”
Poitras said the ground penetrating radar has located at least two rooms and an underground tunnel, which will be explored later.
Although phase one is complete, the work is far from over.
Poitras said each area of interest needs to be closely examined, to determine which ones are actual grave sites.
“It will be a process of elimination,” he said.
There are also other places off site that need to be searched, which means reaching out to landowners in the area to get their permission. Poitras believes there are unmarked graves in the area, but an exactly where and how many will take years to determine.
Poitras and Starr want to federal government to commit to funding the ongoing searches.
Marc Miller the federal minister of Indigenous Services Canada, who joined the news conference via Zoom, acknowledged that this discovery is the first verified finding of bones.
He said Canada will continue to support efforts to bring the children home.
More on this story the February edition of Eagle Feather News.