The Kapawe’no First Nation, which is located over 200 miles northwest of Edmonton, said the discovery was made at the former St. Bernard Mission School at the Grouard Mission site. The potential graves were identified using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and drone imagery, officials said.
“We remember the devastation our people felt when our children were forcibly removed from their families, communities to be placed in Indian residential schools,” Kapawe’no Chief Sydney Halcrow said during a news conference Tuesday. “We can start our journey of healing our identities that they fought so hard to take from us.”
The investigation to find unmarked graves of children who reportedly died at the school began in October 2021 through a joint effort from the Kapawe’no First Nation and the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology (IPIA) at the University of Alberta.
“Hundred sixty-nine potential graves were identified based on analysis on anomalies within the GPR data that had characteristics associated with unmarked graves,” IPIA Director Kisha Supernant said.
Over the course of six days, 115 potential graves were found inside the existing community cemetery where no grave markers were found, according to Supernant. Additionally, 54 potential graves were located around the school property, outside of the cemetery area.
The investigation is expected to continue in two additional phases, Supernant said.
An Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24/7 for former students and others affected at 1-866-925-4419.
Hundreds of unmarked graves identified at other schools
The painful discovery of the potential unmarked graves comes after hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains were found at several sites last year amid a reckoning of how Canada had treated First Nations communities.
“These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture — the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society,” the report said.
Last year, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized for its role in the residential school system and expressed “profound remorse.”
CNN’s Paula Newton, Nicole Chavez and Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.