The discovery of children’s graves at the Kamloops residential school was not a surprise to many. What made the findings so graphic was the stunning detail of the remains as revealed by ground-penetrating radar.
Deceased children as young as three, sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sometimes just buried in shallow graves, were buried in the grounds around the school.
While the discovery was startling to national and international audiences, it was no surprise to former residents of the school.
“It is a great open secret that our children lie on the properties of the former schools,” said Sol Mamakwa, an Indigenous member of the Ontario legislature.
And the graves were no secret to those who dug them, such the former students of the Edmonton Indian Residential School. One such student, Jackie Williams, remembers being hired to dig some of the graves when he was a child.
As long as the remains of children remained hidden under often grassy fields, out of sight, we didn’t have to face the horror of this open secret.
Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has brought details of the remains to the surface and to anguished scrutiny.
GPR may be revealing but the process is not as simple as, say, X-rays. First, a GPR machines about the size of a toaster on wheels are pulled around the area to be surveyed. Initial scanning only takes about as long as it does to walk the grounds being searched.
Then data is downloaded and processed by computers. The set-up cost about $35,000 and requires training to interpret the images.
While the GPR images may look like little more than “blobs” to the untrained eye, experienced researchers can recognize details.
A bit like ultrasound images, I imagine. I watched as an ultrasound was done on my abdomen. Fuzzy images floated into to view on the screen. What I saw as fuzzy blobs, the trained health professionals saw as my liver, kidneys and spleen –and measured with great accuracy.
Dr. Terence Clark is skilled in the use of GPR. He used it to discover gravesites at the former residential school on the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan in 2018.
Cark, a University of Saskatchewan researcher and professor who specializes in community-based archeology, said: “It seemed like this was a validation that their memories were real, this really happened, and they wanted to see it on the screen. They wanted to know that what they experienced was true.”
As researchers view the underground images, it must be like an under-earth diver swimming through rocks, bones, and other artifacts. As details emerge, the children come to life and cry out for justice.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a lawyer and former judge who is of Cree and Scottish descent said: “To me, the dead children themselves in this Kamloops school, and others, have human rights. We have an obligation to them to provide respect for the deceased and take practical steps to address the indignity that might’ve been done to them and their bodies.”
Kamloops is now the focus of global attention in a way that I would have not have preferred. But there we are, and now we need to cooperate with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to see that justice is not only done but seen by the world to be done.