SASKATOON -- A group of Saskatchewan First Nations is beginning their search for unmarked graves at the grounds of the former Delmas/Thunderchild Indian Residential School.

The Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs (BATC) announced in June the plan to search for potential unmarked graves in this area 160 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

The ground-penetrating radar search began this morning with a smudge ceremony, mental health counsellors and elders are on-site for support.

The Delmas/Thunderchild school was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1901 to 1948, when it burned down.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report found the school was overcrowded and many students became sick or died of typhoid, tuberculosis, jaundice, pneumonia and other illnesses.

Karen Whitecalf, board secretary for the BATC and project lead for the residential school ground searches at Delmas and in the Battlefords, says oral history accounts have described a graveyard by the site of the former school.

That land is now privately owned, but Whitecalf says the BATC has formed a strong relationship with the property owners.

"We are just grateful they have given us this opportunity to search their land for our children," she said.

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended residential schools between the 1860s and 1996.

The commission documented stories from survivors and families and issued a report in 2015 that detailed mistreatment, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It said there were at least 4,100 deaths.

Noel Moosuk, an elder from Red Pheasant First Nation, was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the former residential school before the search began. He had family members who attended the school and felt it was important to be present while potential graves are being located.

"This is good," he said. "It's a good thing that they're scanning these areas, gravesites, to tell the truth. The absolute truth has to come out."

Elder Mary Bernadette Fineday also told stories she remembers about her family members' experiences at Delmas.

"I was born 1942 and it burned down 1948," she said. "I was lucky. But my mom and dad went to school here. My mom used to tell me -- I would ask 'what's wrong' and she would say 'we were treated badly.' "

Her husband was also sent to the school, but ran away after being slapped by a nun.

Fineday never attended the residential school herself, but the students left a lasting impression on her.

"I remember I used to see girls," she said. "They used to walk two by two, with short hair -- very short -- navy blue skirts or black skirts, white blouses, white socks. They used to go two by two, and I used to wonder where they were going."

Whitecalf hopes inviting the public to attend this search will help support learning, understanding and healing.

"Our people knew that our children lay on these grounds, we always knew it," she said. "But it was kept a secret. And what I feel is that we shouldn't keep secrets anymore."

Whitecalf said she is moved by the dozens of people who have chosen to come to the site to show support and pay their respects.

"It just feels so good to have this support, because I thought I was going to come here and I was going to be by myself," she said.

Storm Night, whose grandparents attended Delmas, said being present during the search is "a really intense feeling."

"I've cried a lot already," she said. "It's a lot to understand what happened here."

However, she said the search was needed and could offer closure to affected people and communities.

Going forward, Whitecalf said she hopes identifying the graves can be a healing experience for Indigenous communities whose children were taken to Dalmas, as well as for the Town of Dalmas.

"What I would love to see is maybe the First Nations and the community of Delmas come together and build a healing park or a healing garden (at this site), somewhere we could all get together," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 17, 2021.

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