SASKATOON -- Tom Roberts knows emotions will run high this weekend during a search for unmarked graves in La Ronge.

“It’s going to trigger a lot of memories,” he said.

“It’s going to be heartbreaking, and trauma may set in for some people. For me myself, at my age now, I am concerned. I’m still trying to figure out ‘How do I deal with this?’”

A ground-penetrating radar search is set to take place on Saturday and Sunday at an old cemetery site on an urban reserve in La Ronge. That’s where the Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School once stood, operated by the Anglican Church of Canada from 1907 to 1947.

Roberts didn’t attend the school himself, but he did spent six years at a residential school in Prince Albert.

As a counsellor for survivors, Roberts said he knows many with ties to people who attended the Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School.

“Just imagine, you’re waiting for your child to come home from the residential school and your child doesn’t come off the plane or off the boat – and you don’t know what happened to your child, because there was no communication back then. In the wintertime, if a child dies, they bury the child,” he said.

Roberts is emceeing a four-day event during the search, which will include hearing from elders.

His message for anyone attending is to listen, to learn, and to respect.

“These people who went to school here 70, 75 years ago are the most resilient people that I know, and they pass that resiliency on to us, the next generation.”

‘HUGE GAP’ IN COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said it took crews three weeks to clean up the cemetery for ground-penetrating radar.

Throughout the years, she said it became overgrown, covering some of the tombstones marking where children are buried – but she knows there’s more than the tombstones show.

"It's difficult work, but it has to be done and it's important, too, that we seek the truth,” she said.

"We ask for people's prayers, because we're going to need a lot of prayers for strength and guidance."

Cook-Searson said the LLRIB’s event is open to the public, and will include a sacred fire, feasts and access to mental health support.

"We realize that it's going to be hard on our elders and our community members, but it's something that we have to do together, and we'll be there to support,” she said.

Pamela Beaudin, a program director with the Aboriginal Friendship Centres of Saskatchewan, said there’s a “huge gap” in the accessible, community-based support the LLRIB is offering. She said access to elders, healing circles and traditional ceremony is important for survivors as searches for unmarked graves continue across Canada.

“It’s really about meeting people where they are because it’s very hard to ask for help, and if you’re met with different roadblocks and different things, it can turn people away,” she said.

Beaudin said it’s engrained in Indigenous people to be together and to heal as a community.

“To me, it’s almost reminiscent of sort of that wake. When somebody passes away, you gather together and you’re praying together and you’re feasting and you’re supporting each other.”

Beaudin is an intergenerational residential school survivor.

Her dad attended the school in Île-à-la-Crosse, which isn’t classified as a residential school under Canada’s Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement – but it was funded by both the federal and provincial governments, similar to the Timber Bay Children’s Home.

Indigenous leaders have renewed calls for the federal government to recognize the Île-à-la-Crosse and Timber Bay schools as residential schools. The Opposition NDP has also called on the province to apologize for the government’s role in the two schools.

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 Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

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