Searchers unable to find any unmarked graves linked to former Shubenacadie residential school

A team of Nova Scotia researchers has confirmed they were unable to find any unmarked graves for students who died while attending the Shubenacadie residential school. 

The Sipekne’katik First Nation issued a statement Wednesday saying the search of the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School site north of Halifax included the use of ground-penetrating radar and aerial laser scanning.

The survey team’s leader, Jonathan Fowler, said the search included scans of the surrounding farmland.

Fowler, an associate professor with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said evidence of unmarked graves was identified, but it predated the 1930 founding of the residential school by about 100 years and is likely connected to former landowners.

Sipekne’katik Chief, Mike Sack, told members of the local Mi’kmaq community the search will resume if new information comes forward.

“As we said at the outset, our best hope would be to find no evidence of graves as we continue to grapple with the effects of the residential school system on our communities,” Sack said. “We know that people need closure and healing.”

Jonathan Fowler, an associate professor with Saint Mary’s University said evidence of unmarked graves was identified, but it predated the 1930 founding of the residential school by about 100 years. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN.

Ground-penetrating radar was used at the former school in April and December of last year and again this past June and July.

There is an official list of 16 students who died while attending the school, but local Mi’kmaq Elder Dorene Bernard has said survivors have come forward in the past three years to provide the names of more missing children.

The Department of Indian Affairs brought students to the school from all three Maritime provinces and the Restigouche reserve in Quebec.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), “From its founding, the school suffered from poor construction, poor maintenance, overcrowding.”

The school also had a reputation for how staff treated the students.

According to the NCTR, there was an inquiry in 1934 into the flogging of 19 boys from the school. Records in the NCTR online said “A doctor testified the flogging had left the boys with permanent scars, but the judge heading the inquiry said the boys got what they deserved.”

Also, children operating laundry and kitchen equipment “led to a number of serious injuries.”

By 1967 the school was closed.

Operated by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Halifax until 1956, the institution burned to the ground in the 1980s.

Survivors of the former Shubenacadie residential school at the search site. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued a report saying the country’s church-run, government-sponsored residential school system was a tool for cultural genocide.

The commission compiled a list 4,100 names of children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school.

“Some of these children ran away, while others died at the schools,” the commission concluded. “The exact number of children who died at school may never be known, but the death rates for many schools, particularly during times of epidemic or disease, were very high.”

Last month, the federal government announced it would increase funding beyond the $27.1 million pledged in the 2019 budget for searches for unmarked graves.

The funding announcement followed recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at several residential school sites. In all, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended residential schools.

For those Indigenous families who resisted the system, children were forcibly taken away by the RCMP. The schools were also known for overcrowding, poor sanitation, unhealthy food and menial labour. Harsh punishment was meted out for students who spoke their native language or took part in traditional ceremonies.

With files from the Canadian Press 

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