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169 potential unmarked graves found at former Canadian residential school

A team from the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology conducted a search in October 2021 at the former site of St. Bernard’s Indian Residential School.
Credit: University of British Columbia Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre Collections
A Roman Catholic mission was established at Grouard, in what is now Alberta in 1872. By 1895 the federal government was funding St. Bernard's (also known as Grouard Residential School) at the mission. In the 1940s the school established a manual training building with a focus on Aboriginal handicrafts, an initiative that developed into a cooperative business venture. The school enrolled a large number of Métis students: by 1949 they accounted for half of the students in residence. During the 1950s many of the school’s students were transferred to the Joussard school. With the opening of local day schools, St. Bernard's enrollment began to decline. The school was closed in 1961.

GROUARD, Alberta — A total of 169 potential unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of a Catholic boarding school in Alberta, Canada, the Kapawe’no First Nation announced Tuesday, continuing the uncovering of a dark history at Indigenous boarding schools.

The Indigenous tribe, located more than 200 miles northwest of Edmonton, said a team from the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta conducted a six-day search in October 2021 at the former site of St. Bernard’s Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and drone imaging.

The search was phase one of a three-phase plan. Phase one focused on high-priority areas identified by survivors, community members, and tribal records. Using GPR and drone imaging, researchers searched nearly an acre of land around the boarding school, including a community cemetery, areas surrounding the boarding school's church and the former residence for nuns and an old root cellar.

RELATED: The dark history of Indian boarding schools

Eight "likely graves" and 107 "probable graves" were found unmarked in the cemetery alone. Potential unmarked graves were located at all of the areas searched but additional analysis is needed for confirmation. Overall, 169 potential graves were discovered on the grounds.

"Each of these children was a beloved part of a family and no one has been held accountable," said Dr. Kisha Supernant, who led the research team. "The preliminary results of phase one indicate there's much more to do to find answers."

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died, the Associated Press reported in 2021.

The Canadian government apologized in Parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant.

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