The English River First Nation community in Saskatchewan has announced the discovery of 79 suspected child graves and 14 potential infant graves. The Chief of the English River First Nation, Jenny Wolverine, expressed heartbreak at the findings during a press conference in Saskatoon, stating that these numbers are far from final and are likely to increase.
The ongoing search commenced in August 2021 at the site of the former Beauval Indian Residential School, led by ground penetrating radar (GPR).
Initially uncertain of what the search might unearth, the community recalled past generations whispering about the harsh treatment of the students, and of those who never made it home. As the search advanced, an increased total of 93 possible grave sites was identified, following an earlier disclosure of 83 unconfirmed unmarked graves this month by the First Nation.
Upon revealing their grave findings, the English River First Nation requested privacy and indicated that additional details would subsequently be communicated. Chief Wolverine described the disclosure as the launch point of a profoundly arduous journey. The community united, prioritizing the elders and survivors and conducting ceremonies to foster healing.
Calling upon the federal and provincial governments, Chief Wolverine asked for increased support for their continued search efforts. She further emphasized the importance of action over words, advocating for the resolute return of the lost children.
Dawn McIntyre, the coordinator of the radar search, whose grandmother and father were forced to attend Beauval Indian Residential School, shared the stage with Chief Wolverine during the meeting. She explained that the potential graves were located through a blend of radar, geoscience, and archaeological expertise. Based on soil disturbance measurements detected by GPR technology, it is believed that the majority of the unmarked graves are of children, with at least 14 infants among them.
Discussing her family’s legacy with the residential school, McIntyre shared the gruesome impact the trauma has on her community to this day, and her personal resonance with the struggle.
McIntyre indicated that the exhumation of the suspected graves would be reserved as the last resort. The existing records that have been obtained so far, along with any potential new findings will be prioritized. The team is preparing to embark on the second phase of the search, guided by survivors’ stories and areas within the residential school grounds that require further examination.
In the course of its ongoing research, a broad collection of records, including French handwritten documents provided to the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation, will assist the community in identifying the children who may have lost their lives at the school. The process of document analysis is predicted to span two to three years.
The Beauval Indian Residential School, founded in 1860, was operational for over a century. It was governed by a Roman Catholic mission until 1969. In 2013, a former dormitory supervisor was convicted for indecent assault and gross indecency, perpetrated against young boys between 1959 and 1967.