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Sask. First Nation says it has found 93 potential unmarked child, infant graves

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A Saskatchewan First Nation now says it has found 79 suspected child grave sites and 14 potential infant grave sites.

"This is not a final number. It breaks my heart that they are likely more," English River First Nation chief Jenny Wolverine said during a news conference in Saskatoon on Tuesday.

English River started searching the site of the former Beauval Indian Residential School in August 2021, using ground penetrating radar (GPR).

"We were not sure what to expect and what we would find. But we did know the stories that were shared over generations about the treatment of the students and those students who never returned home," Wolverine said.

The revised total of 93 possible gravesites comes after English River First Nation disclosed the discovery of 83 suspected unmarked graves earlier this month.

The First Nation asked for privacy following its initial revelation and had said more details would be revealed during Tuesday's news conference.

Speaking in Saskatoon on Tuesday, Wolverine said disclosing the findings marked the start of a "long and difficult journey."

"As a community and a nation we came together and put our elders and survivors first," Wolverine said.

"We did ceremony to help them come to terms, to heal their spirit."

The English River chief called upon the federal and provincial governments to provide resources for the First Nation's search effort.

"It doesn't all come down to dollars and cents," Wolverine said, visibly choking up for a few moments.

"We have heard 'I am sorry.' Now we need to see action, and that means continuing to bring home the children we lost at the hands of residential schools."

The coordinator of the radar search, Dawn McIntyre, also joined Wolverine at the news conference.

She said the potential gravesites were found through a combination of radar, geoscience and archeological expertise.

"Most if not all of these unmarked graves are believed to be children, and at least 14 of them are believed to be infants. This is based on the measurements of the soil disturbances that were detected by GPR." McIntyre said.

McIntyre said her grandmother and father were both forced to attend Beauval Indian Residential School.

"The trauma that they and their fellow students suffered, it was brought home and the impacts are obvious in our communities today," McIntyre said.

"During this GPR search process, I have become acutely aware of how this school has impacted my own life." 

When asked by a reporter, McIntyre said that exhuming the suspected graves would be a "last resort."

"At this point, I think we're going to try to rely on the records that we have been able to obtain and whatever else we can get," she said.

McIntyre said team is preparing to move into the second phase of the search.

"There are more areas within the residential school grounds that have been identified by our survivors, stories that we need to look at. So we'll do more searching with the GPR as well as continuing the analysis of the records," she said.

As part of its research, the community expects to draw on a collection of records, including documents handwritten in French, that were provided to the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation and will help identify children who may have lost their lives at the school.

The process of analyzing the documents could take two to three years.

Beauval Indian Residential School was first founded in 1860 and operated for more than 100 years, according to the University of Regina. It was operated by a Roman Catholic mission until 1969.

In 2013, a former dormitory supervisor at the school was convicted of indecent assault and gross indecency for assaults on young boys between 1959 and 1967.

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous Peoples are available here.

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