By Lawrie Crawford
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Finding out what happened to the children who disappeared after being sent to residential school is a long truth-finding process.
And it is not an exact science. It involves gathering historical records, interviewing survivors and determining possible burial
locations: al this, long before beginning to scan the ground. How far to go and how fast is up to the communities involved.
Started last year as a Carcross/Tagish First Nation undertaking, an announcement at a press conference March 24 said the project had grown beyond the grounds of the Chooutla residential school. The working group is now to be housed within the Council for Yukon First Nations (CYFN) and re-named the Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children working group to reflect the project’s expansion.
Adeline Webber, chair, and Judy Gingell, vice-chair, are committed to working with survivors and communities to find out as much as they can, as gently as possible. They will be travelling this summer to all Yukon communities with a team that includes “statement gatherers” and wellness supports.
Presently the Chooutla residential school research is further along than other Yukon communities. Records have been gathered and reviewed, but most are incomplete or non-existent. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada identified 20 students, and preliminary research has identified another 22.
At the press conference, Webber described the records she had seen as “terrible.” One of the things she noted is that a death may have been recorded, but without a name or family members, or would fail to name a child’s home community. Among the 42 identified, 13 are not named in the records.
Children came to the Chooutla school from all over the Yukon, and some from the Northwest Territories. Sites near schools in Whitehorse, Dawson and near Aklavik at Shingle Point will be searched in future years.
There are several aspects to the research: interviews, paper records, historical maps and ground-truthing.
On the geo-technical side of the project, the company GeoScan has been engaged from the start of conversations. Brian Whiting is the technical lead for the company, and he presented his methods and processes for community members in Carcross on Dec. 16, 2022.
Whiting described how he started this work combining his passion for history with his PhD in geology, working in the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean, searching burial grounds for the unmarked graves of black slaves. He says all cemeteries have unmarked graves.
Whiting is well-respected. He is a resource for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and is working on school sites throughout western Canada, the N.W.T., the Yukon and British Columbia.
“This work is a calling for me,” he told people gathered at the Carcross information session.
“I’m helping these people tell their story. The people who were put in the ground without any ceremony, without any status, I’m helping give them voice after the fact. And showing them respect that they maybe didn’t get in life.”
Whiting says every nation needs to work at their own pace.
“They have to talk it over, building consensus and developing a way forward is a very important thing.
“There is no book,we are writing the book on how to do this, figuring out as we go,” Whiting reminded the gathering.
One of the key questions that the Yukon residential schools missing children working group will face in the future was asked at the press conference: what are your plans once possible unmarked graves are identified?
Webber spoke frankly about the importance of cultural protocols and consultation.
“We’ve talked to the working group members who are consulting their communities, and they are talking about the protocols for each of the First Nations,” she said.
“We won’t be doing anything with them without consulting the First Nations involved because the children that attended Chooutla residential school were from all over the Yukon.”
In Whiting’s experience, each nation will determine its own approach.
“I do encourage people to think, and think about it from the beginning,” he said.
Whiting said one B.C. First Nation has already determined, prior to the technical ground-finding processes, that the sites will not be unearthed. The likely grave sites will be marked and the locations memorialized, but there will be no digging.
“It’s a sensitive topic,” he said.
Whiting has been working all winter, gathering old aerial photographs and bringing them into different computer mapping programs. He’s still looking for pre-1940’s aerial photographs of the Carcross area and photos for future searches in Whitehorse, Dawson and Shingle Point.
These photographs will be overlaid with what’s known about the ground today. They also consider the geology of the area and identify areas where it might have been easier to dig.
When the snow is off the site they will go in with a LiDAR-equipped drone. LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging, which is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to generate precise, three-dimensional information about the surface.
It has the ability to “see through” gaps in the leaves or branches to record the real ground surface, Whiting said.
“LiDAR really likes to have completely bare ground, because we’re looking for small lumps and bumps in the earth, and we don’t want them to be filled in the snow.”
From there, but before they hit the ground with equipment, they will figure out where the likely spots are for burials.
Once that’s done and analyzed, likely in July, equipment will be hauled onto the site in Carcross.
“The equipment that will be used on the Chooutla residential school site is called a multi-channel GPR 1/8ground penetrating radar 3/8. It is larger than a lawn mower and takes two people to steer it around. It has eight transmitters and receivers all firing simultaneously. It gets really good detail and moves faster than the smaller equipment.”
He cautions, though.
“It’s not like a fish finder, where you get to see where the fish are, and you go, `Oh, it’s right here.’ What happens for us is, we go back and forth and back and forth with our equipment. The picture doesn’t really start to become clear until we’re back in the office and have time to work up the data,” he said.
“When we interpret the GPR and other geophysical data in the office, we have a list of four clear, objective criteria that we look for. And we double-check with two independent staff to make sure they agree. If we see a feature in the data that meets all four criteria, we identify it as a `probable’ grave.”
Whiting provided these details in an email to the News on March 27. He wrote that this concurrence would result in the highest level of confidence. “If a feature meets some but not all four of the criteria, we may identify it as a `possible’ grave.”
He emphasized that there is never any image of human remains or bones, all the evidence is indirect and only related to changes in the ground when the ground is dug up.
Whiting said the work must be done to the highest standard because he believes the work could potentially end up in court as a result of a forensic investigations.
“We try to do the work to the highest standards” regardless of future outcomes, he said.
“And we try to approach it sensitively.”
The new working group has been doing its homework. On March 8 and 9 they coordinated knowledge keepers gathering at Haa Shagoon Hidi in Carcross. First Nations from across B.C., Lake of the Woods and Nunavut came together to share their experience.
The keynote speaker was Kimberly Murray, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools who was appointed in June 2022 for a two-year term by the federal Minister of Justice.
She is to function independently and impartially, acting in a non-partisan and transparent manner to achieve the objectives of her mandate which includes making recommendations for a new federal legal framework to identify, protect, and preserve unmarked burial sites.
The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation and the National Advisory Committee on Missing Children and Unmarked Graves, also made presentations at the March gathering, according to Webber during the press conference.
Lawrie Crawford is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with YUKON NEWS. The program is federally funded.