Kisha Supernant walks with a screen strapped to her chest and drags a device that looks like a lawn mower across a large, unkempt field in Edmonton, Alberta, wedged between an eight-lane highway and a new subdivision full of cookie-cutter houses.
She’s demonstrating ground-penetrating radar, a clunky technology that rolls along and emits high-frequency radio waves that penetrate the ground and collide with disturbances under the surface. It’s typically used to detect the presence of water pipes and gas lines—but it is also being used to locate 50- to 100-year-old unmarked graves, mostly of children, currently at the centre of one of Canada’s biggest news stories of 2021.
“No investigation is anywhere near being complete. We have barely scratched the surface and there are thousands of graves left to search and to understand,” Supernant said.
In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation located more than 200 likely unmarked graves of children in Kamloops, B.C., using ground-penetrating radar as well as testimonies of residential school survivors. The children had likely attended the Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School, one of the largest of its kind in Canada. Up to 500 students were enrolled at the school at any given time, until it closed in 1978.
Survivors, who’ve been speaking out for decades, said they were beaten; nuns and other staff compared Indigenous culture to the devil; the shoes they were given were ill-fitting and thus painful; and they were referred to by assigned numbers, not names.
The news set off a national reckoning, not unlike last year’s Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder, and played a significant role in this year’s federal election. Every major party campaigned on commitments to Indigenous justice.
The horrors Kamloops exposed played out throughout Canada’s entire residential “school” system, which ran from the 1880s to the mid-1990s, with the help of Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and other churches. About 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit children were pushed into the system where the point was to “kill the Indian in the child”—a racist idea endorsed by high-profile politicians, including Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.
“Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men,” Macdonald explicitly said in 1883.
Students forced to attend the schools routinely ran away, while thousands died or never made it home to their parents and communities. Today, Indigenous-led searches across Canada are trying to locate missing children in unmarked graves.
Supernant is one of only a handful of Indigenous archaeologists—less than 10, she estimates—in Canada. Fewer still know how to use ground-penetrating radar to locate probable unmarked graves. Amid a nationwide search for unmarked graves at former residential school sites, led by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, Supernant, who is Métis, heads the national archaeologist working group on unmarked graves. She is the expert communities are reaching out to for support.
“I feel a responsibility to do this work as an Indigenous person, in part because of the impacts that the residential school system has had on my family and my relatives, but also because I know the difference it makes for Indigenous communities when they have someone who understands already the complexities of this,” said Supernant, whose relatives, including her great-grandfather, were in residential schools.
Soon after the Kamloops discovery, communities in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Manitoba confirmed more than 1,000 additional likely unmarked graves, with others also committing to their own scans at former residential school sites. Experts have estimated there are as many as 10,000 to 15,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children across Canada.
“A lot of Canadians are saying, ‘6,000 children.’ We don’t actually know that. To say that makes it look like we’re further along than we are,” Supernant said. “We know it’s likely, but to actually say we know that for sure does a disservice to the journey many Indigenous communities are on.”
Supernant’s work is only just beginning; she said it could take the “better part of a decade” to scan for, detect, and, if communities want, exhume unmarked graves.
But as Supernant’s work ramps up, the initial shock felt by the public seems to be subsiding. The news out of Kamloops initially set off a nationwide outcry: Flags were flown at half-mast, cities and Indigenous nations cancelled Canada Day, and several churches were lit on fire. Canada will observe its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Thursday, a federal holiday, to honour residential school survivors and all the children who went missing.
“Kamloops has kind of opened everybody’s eyes.”
When the day ends, though, Canadians still have a huge role to play in actively pushing for justice, even—and especially—as the news cycle continues to pivot and the initial shock subsides.
“What happened to Indigenous children is genocide, and the legacy of that continues through denial and inaction,” wrote Beverly Jacobs, a University of Windsor law professor from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.
In the southwestern Ontario town of Brantford, a long paved driveway lines a lush, green plot and leads visitors towards the entrance of a red-brick building. White columns framing the front steps make it look especially colonial. Today, it’s the home of the Woodland Cultural Centre, which preserves and promotes Indigenous history and culture. Decades ago, the building housed the Mohawk Institute Residential School, which existed to carry out the exact opposite mission.
In 1957, at the age of 6, Roberta Hill, a member of Six Nations, was forced to attend the Anglican-run school, which operated from 1831 to 1970. It was one of the longest-running residential schools in Canada.
At any given time, the Mohawk Institute had 90 to 200 students, and as soon as kids arrived, they were given numbers in place of their names. Hill’s was 34. She still remembers the other kids, a few whose names are scratched into the building’s exterior bricks, and is in touch with some of them to this day.
The “school” is colloquially known as the “mush hole,” Hill said, a reference to the porridge-like food, often contaminated with maggots, that students were forced to eat up to three times a day, while staff ate roast beef and vegetables in the same dining hall.
Children were starved and malnourished. Many, especially the older kids, did child labour, too, including farming for food they couldn’t eat themselves.
Hill recounted how she first arrived at the school with five of her siblings, who were then separated from one other. “I wasn’t fearful then. It was just strange because I didn’t know where they were putting us, other than this is where you’re told to go,” Hill said.
Students were frequently physically and sexually abused. School staff carried straps with them all the time, and often hit children. “I don’t like the punishment for things I didn’t do. When you comply with all the rules, what are you hitting me for?” Hill said.
At one point, when Hill wet her pants out of fear, she pretended she hadn’t, so that she wouldn’t get caught. “You just don’t wet your pants and get away with it there,” Hill said. She said she couldn’t ask for a change of clothes because it was the middle of the week and kids were only allowed to bathe and change on Saturdays.
Hill’s mom visited Mohawk twice—a rarity—and Hill said she “cried and cried” both times. After the second visit, the head administrator took Hill up to his office. That’s when he sexually assaulted her for the first time. She was 7 or 8.
“From that point on, you know what he’s capable of doing… You’ll never get past this minister, because he has all the authority,” she said.
“It was a cruel place,” Hill said, matter-of-factly. “Parents weren’t told, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to your kids when you drop your kids off’... They tell you, ‘We’re going to feed your children. We’re going to look after them. We’re going to educate them.’
“It’s very false and misleading what they were saying, because that is not the truth.”
In July, Six Nations police announced an investigation into deaths at the Mohawk Institute after repeated calls from community members to scan the grounds and look into at least 54 documented deaths that took place there. Officers said they don’t know where the students who died were buried, something survivors like Hill want to find out.
“Kamloops has kind of opened everybody’s eyes that we’re not lying when we say there’s burial sites here,” Hill said.
It shouldn’t have taken the discovery in Kamloops to spark national attention. Survivors like Hill have been speaking out against the atrocities at residential schools across the country for decades, and in 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a series of damning reports, including 94 calls to action, that detailed rampant abuse and neglect at residential schools, their ongoing legacy, and the steps Canadians need to take to remedy the harms.
And yet, many non-Indigenous Canadians had little idea about Canada’s residential school system beforehand, either because they didn’t learn about it in school or because they previously ignored the stories, or both.
“This is really telling that people were shocked, because it means to me they weren’t listening,” Supernant said.
Many people are also fixating on the number—thousands—of missing children, but people need to go beyond the sensational figures and think about the families and communities who lost their children, Supernant said.
“One thing we do hear about are stories around families who basically would be waiting for their children to come off the plane, and then their child never came off and they had no idea why,” she said.
The TRC’s comprehensive calls to action offer a road map for people who don’t know where to go from here. They call on people in positions of power, as well as ordinary Canadians, to acknowledge the country’s historical ills and ongoing abuses, and to take concrete steps to fix them—such as supporting the bringing back of Indigenous languages and reducing the number of Indigenous kids in foster care, a system largely considered an extension of residential schools.
While Canada has acknowledged its past and ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, it has also dragged its feet implementing the recommendations. For example, until this year, the government had rejected requests to pay for searches for unmarked graves. In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement led to the TRC and a payout for residential school survivors, but some survivors got as little as $10,000. According to the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-justice think tank, only eight of the 94 calls had been implemented by last December under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Wab Kinew, the leader of Manitoba’s centre-left New Democratic Party and the official opposition leader in Manitoba’s legislature, was an honorary TRC witness. He said he thinks Canadians are finally starting to understand the incredible scale of Canada’s systematic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.
“It’s one thing to intellectually hear about a genocide, but then it’s another to realize that was done to people just like me or to little kids… That’s where you’ve seen a lot of the reaction and response this year,” Kinew said.
Now, the government needs to step aside and fund Indigenous-led efforts, including those searching for more unmarked graves, he said. “Indigenous-led, to ensure that it’s trauma-informed and puts the survivors front and centre. But the governments, which in many cases helped to perpetrate this, should definitely foot the bill.”
As for the rest of Canada, he said, “Folks today can think about getting involved, maybe not necessarily with the searches themselves, but: How do you memorialize the children who never came home? And what are we going to do as a country today to ensure that memory lives on?”
Many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have recently been demanding accountability—in the form of resources, apologies, and more—from the Canadian government and particularly the Catholic Church, which until recently had long resisted calls to apologize. In the summer, a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous lawyers asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Canada and the Catholic Church for crimes against humanity. The ICC said at the time it’s considering the complaint.
Last week, Canadian bishops finally apologized, but there’s been no apology from Pope Francis or any pope, which Indigenous leaders have repeatedly demanded.
All Canadians should continue to speak out and advocate, contact MPs, and keep politicians engaged, Supernant said. “If you’re horrified by what happened and the fact that thousands of children never came home, continue the pressure and amplify Indigenous voices.”
Winnipeg-based Action Therapy brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers to offer culturally specific grassroots advocacy all over the city, including in the inner city, where an estimated 70 percent of people attended residential schools, according to Mitch Bourbonniere, who runs Action Therapy.
At Action Therapy headquarters, 9-year-old Daerion Hidalgo is showing a video of himself dancing in regalia to some of the volunteers. Hidalgo was the only male dancer who danced in front of Manitoba’s legislature after the 200 graves were announced in Kamloops.
“I do grass dancing. I’ve done it for a few years now, and I do it for the children from residential schools who couldn’t. It’s just my culture and I love doing it,” Hidalgo said.
Grass dancing is a traditional Indigenous style of dance attributed to several Indigenous nations, including Anishinaabe.
It’s something Strong Eagle, a residential school survivor and cultural advisor affiliated with Action Therapy who works with Indigenous youth, wouldn’t have been allowed to do while at residential school.
“See how beautiful that is?” Strong Eagle said. “Whatever reason the government wanted us to not have that gift… dancing, singing, praying, doing ceremonies... It’s devastating.”
“My goal is to regain everything back,” said Strong Eagle, who was 4 when he was forced to go to residential school. “We’re still here. We’re going to continue to fight for what is right for us as Indigenous people.”
Hill, the survivor who attended the Mohawk Institute, said a lot has changed in her lifetime: She was forbidden from speaking Mohawk as a child, but her third kid was able to go to a Mohawk-immersion grade school.
“The damage has been done to Indigenous communities, to Indigenous children, to families… [but that] doesn’t mean that you can’t stand back up and try to reclaim,” Hill said.
Canada still has a long way to go, she said.
“Find out all of the truths, then we’ll talk about reconciliation,” Hill said, but in the meantime, “it makes a difference when your general population hears and they’re saying, ‘We don’t like what Canada did.’”
Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.