Knowledge event held to share lessons learned in search for unmarked graves at residential schools

Thursday, March 7th, 2024 6:11pm


Image Caption

Dr. Kisha Supernant, a member of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) on Missing Children and Unmarked Graves in relation to Indian residential schools, is flanked by Eugene Arcand (left) and Jacquie Bouvier, both members of the Circle of Survivors.


“I want to share this with our allies: As well intentioned as you are, it’s important that you work in delicate way on this and know your lane. Don’t become experts of our misery.” —Eugene Arcand
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Dr. Kisha Supernant says there's an important balancing act that must be met when it comes to engaging with survivors of Indian residential schools. 

She took time out from presenting March 6 at the National Knowledge Sharing Event on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Graves held in Regina to speak with

“The question of the survivors is a really central one…(and) we recognize the importance of this work being survivor-centred and survivor-led,” said Supernant, a member of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) on Missing Children and Unmarked Graves in relation to Indian residential schools.

Eugene Arcand is one of those survivors. He spent nine years at St. Michael residential school in Duck Lake and two years at St. Paul’s in Lebret, both in Saskatchewan. He now serves as a member of the Survivors Circle that guides the work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Speaking as part of a panel of survivors March 6, the second day of the three-day sharing event hosted by NAC, Arcand expressed frustration with the concept of survivor-led and survivors-first. He said that it often happens in words only and isn’t followed by action.

He also stressed that not all survivors were ready to lead or speak about their experiences, and they shouldn’t be forced to do either.

And he said that statements he has made were often assessed and challenged.

“Most of those assessments are done by people who never stepped foot in a residential school in your life. If you want us to lead, get the hell out of the way and listen to us instead of trying to prove us wrong. Why would we lie to you about what we've shared? There's no reason,” said Arcand.

“I want to share this with our allies: As well intentioned as you are, it’s important that you work in delicate ways on this and know your lane. Don’t become experts of our misery,” he said.

While not speaking specifically to Arcand’s concerns, Supernant said, “One of the challenges where I have done work is that there are survivors from many different communities. There are survivors in the particular community that might be leading the ground search, but then there could be survivors from 40 other communities around the country and it can be difficult to ensure that all the survivors are included.”

Supernant, a Métis archeologist and director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, is working with communities in carrying out ground searches for potential unmarked graves.

“Also, there's the balance of not wanting to put too much on the backs of survivors because, as I believe Eugene was speaking about, some aren't really in a place to share or to lead. So starting with an invitation, but not an expectation, I think, is really an important thing,” she said.

Supernant also points out that the work that has been undertaken, more extensively since Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced the 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian residential school in May 2021 and Cowessess First Nation followed one month later with 751 unmarked graves at former Marieval Indian residential school, is work that is being figured out as it goes along.

“This is a gathering to talk about lessons learned and pathways forward,” she said, and identifying whether “course corrections” are required.

Speaking to her area of expertise, Supernant notes that there have already been changes made by communities as to when they undertake ground searches and when they go public with the findings.

“I think we are seeing a shift in that to an extent. We saw a lot of announcements over the first couple of years that were talking about anomalies and talking about hits or different terms being used. I think communities are more cautious than they used to be about making big public announcements until they know more,” she said.

No longer, she adds, are communities immediately jumping to do ground penetrating radar (GPR) searches.

“I think we've seen a shift in that from communities where they're recognizing that, if you just jump into ground searching without having a sense of where you need to look exactly, you may not get the results you're hoping for,” said Supernant.

In speaking on the survivors’ panel, Jacquie Bouvier, a member of the Circle of Survivors that guides NAC, said after the snow melted, she wanted to do a ceremony for her two baby sisters who are buried at the Beauval residential school cemetery. It is the same school that she attended and where she was sexually abused.

The detection of the infants side-by-side, one six months old and the other nine months old, are marked by “two little pink flags,” she said.

Bouvier said that she and two other members of NAC would be going to Beauval, using their own money, and doing further GPR work.

Supernant says Bouvier can identify her two sisters because her mother knew they were in the cemetery and had a general idea of where they were.

“Because of that internal family knowledge, when the results were made public by English River (First Nation) about the cemetery by the Beauval Indian Residential School, that was the area that Jacquie thought that they were but didn't know exactly…It's more so just that family knowledge,” said Supernant.

A potential 93 unmarked graves were found in that Beauval search.

The NAC gathering is hosting three workshops that focus on areas in which “outside experts are training, (and) capacity building for (Indigenous) communities,” said Supernant.

Knowledge gathering includes survival testimonies, like Bouvier’s late mother’s recollections, information about school grounds over time, including maps, burial plot information and historic aerial photographs. It also involves searching archives and many of those records are in French so translation is required.

Gathering this kind of knowledge, says Supernant, makes a ground search more effective.

Another workshop focuses on grounds searches, looking at what other technologies are available beyond GPR, which has limitations “so you need to layer on other technologies,” says Supernant.

Other methods of searching could include search dogs trained to smell older human remains, which some communities are already using.

“A few of us are working with a company out of the U.S. who has a technology to probe the soil, to look for the presence of material that human bodies can leave behind,” said Supernant.

Another workshop is on forensics.

“What happens once you’ve found an anomaly or a likely grave?” said Supernant.

GPR results inside of buildings are “tricky,” says Supernant.

Forensics also looks at identification through DNA, which isn’t always possible depending on the age of the child and the soil the child is buried in.

Supernant stresses that decisions lie with the communities when it comes to unmarked graves and searches and disclosing those findings.

Approximately 45 sites are known to have been searched for unmarked graves.

“There are definitely nations who have done searches and have not made any results public beyond their community because they need more certainty before they're comfortable in doing so and that decision has to be the communities to make,” she said.

This work will take “potentially decades,” says Supernant, and communities need more funding, more training and more capacity building opportunities.

She adds that concerns have been raised by survivors as to what will happen should Trudeau’s Liberals be replaced by the Conservative Party. A federal election is expected by October 2025.

Readers can watch the sharing event recordings on the NAC YouTube channel at

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.