DISCLAIMER: This story contains distressing details.
The George Gordon First Nation in southern Saskatchewan is taking the first steps to guide a future search for unmarked graves at the site that once housed Gordon’s Indian Residential School.
The project will initially consist of collecting stories from survivors and their descendants to help identify patterns that are worth investigating, according to the organizers.
“We are trying to put in place a strategic, thoughtful and careful process,” said Sarah Longman, a member of the group, who has experience in finding graves at the Regina Industrial School site.
Longman, Chief Byron Bitternose and survivor Ed Bitternose are part of a local team helping to plan the community approach. The reserve is located approximately 113 kilometers northeast of Regina, near the village of Punnichy.
“[Survivors and descendants] are going to help us define certain locations, because when you hear the same story multiple times in that particular location, you should probably check out that particular location, ”Longman said.
Ed Bitternose said he attended three residential schools in Saskatchewan, including Gordon’s Indian Residential School, for a year in 1958 and 1959.
When Bitternose left the system in 1966, “I told myself and my friends that I would never, ever send my kids to residential school.
Major Christian denominations operated approximately 20 federally funded residential schools in Saskatchewan starting in the late 19th century. After being separated from their communities and families, children have been subjected to various forms of neglect and abuse.
Gordon’s Indian Residential School started as a day school under the aegis of the Anglican Church of Canada in 1876, expanding 12 years later to provide housing for students. The school burned down in 1929 and was rebuilt, finally closing in 1996.
The school “is infamous for its child abuse,” according to the George Gordon First Nation website.
“It has a lot of impact on our community,” Chief Bitternose said of the school’s legacy. “There are a lot of different areas that our people struggle with. “
“Ceaseless mistreatment of students”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has shed light on some of the abuses documented at the residential school. He found that in the 1930s, students were confined to the infirmary as a punishment.
“While locked up, students might not be allowed to see their parents if they visited the school,” the TRC wrote in the volume of its findings titled Missing children and unmarked burials.
Later in the decade, the school principal was told by a federal official that “while it is doubtful” that cutting girls’ hair “constitutes assault in the legal sense of the term, at the same time it is felt that you should adopt another method of enforcing discipline. “
Andrew Gordon, 11, ran away from school in 1939. The principal never organized a search or informed the family.
A girl was hospitalized after being punished in 1956.
“Indian Affairs only became aware of it after the resignation of the director in charge of the school and the flight from the country,” wrote the CVR.
Other forms of physical abuse included slapping students in the face and banging their heads against doors and walls.
“The school had a long history of mismanagement, sexual abuse of students, and complaints that the discipline was harsh and abusive,” according to the TRC. “During the last years of the school, its management did not control the staff. The result was relentless abuse of the students.”
In 1993, the man who had been appointed by the federal government as administrator of the residence, William Starr, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for sexually assaulting 10 male students. Starr was in charge of the student residence from the late 1960s to 1984.
“There have always been stories”
The TRC found that across Canada 4,100 named and unnamed students died in residential schools, and many were likely buried in anonymous and unmaintained graves in schools or school-related cemeteries. The practice was to reduce burial costs and oppose the return of student bodies to their home community.
Based on its preliminary burial search work, the TRC determined that there were likely other unidentified residential burials across the country.
Some people, including residential school staff and their children, are buried at St. Luke’s Church on the George Gordon First Nation reserve, Bitternose said.
But find out if any students at Gordon’s boarding school were buried in anonymous graves and where, that’s why Bitternose and the rest of the team are asking the community for advice.
“There have always been stories of lost babies or babies of pregnant girls seeming to go missing, or the girl is not pregnant after being there for a while,” Bitternose said.
Along with accounts from survivors and descendants, maps of the area will also potentially help refine the search, Bitternose said.
“We will use this kind of information in the future to try to identify where we could do it. [ground-penetrating radar work] if we go in that direction, ”he said.
Other Sask. research efforts
George Gordon First Nation is only the last Indigenous group in Saskatchewan to announce such plans since Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia reported the discovery of a burial site adjacent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School in late May. Preliminary results released by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation suggest that the site contains the remains of 215 children.
Around the same time, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced that they would be doing ground penetrating radar work at the site where Cowessess Boarding School, also known as Marievale, operated near Grayson, Saskatchewan, until 1997.
Two weeks ago, the First Nation announced that its search had detected 751 anonymous graves.
Four more Saskatchewan First Nations have started work or confirmed plans
More recently, Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band said the band was planning a search of the Lac La Ronge school site, also known as the All saints. The school operated until 1947 when it burned down for the second time and the students were transferred to Gordon Residential School or Prince Albert School.
Cook-Searson said a meeting to finalize work on the ground penetrating radar was being held on Monday.
Since the discovery of Kamloops, provincial funding of $ 2 million and another $ 4.9 million from the federal government has been set aside to help find unmarked graves at residential schools in Saskatchewan.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, coordinates these funds.
“The FSIN has already identified the former residential schools of Muskowekwan, Onion Lake St. Anthony, Beauval, Guy Hill, Lebret and Sturgeon Landing as possible research sites,” the federation said in a recent press release.
“However, it is believed that the list of places First Nations would like to investigate may grow.”
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and for those triggered by the latest reports.
A national residential school crisis line has been established to provide support to 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.