Efforts using radar to scan the grounds near the location of the now-demolished Chooutla Residential School in Carcross have found 15 anomalies believed to be potential grave sites of children who died at the school.

By Mark Page 

The Whitehorse Star 

Efforts using radar to scan the grounds near the location of the now-demolished Chooutla Residential School in Carcross have found 15 anomalies believed to be potential grave sites of children who died at the school.

While scanning was underway, a group called Know History was simultaneously able to verify 33 deaths occurred at the school by combing through documents and the archival record.

“As you can appreciate, this message is difficult to hear, and it will be difficult to hear for survivors across the territory,” said Doris Bill of the Yukon Residential School and Missing Children Working Group after the results of the search were presented Tuesday in Whitehorse.

All of the potential graves are within a mile of the former school’s main site, with three of them very close to the where the school once stood.

The rest are consistent with what could be “secret” burial sites, according to Brian Whiting, who oversaw the technical aspects of the search for the Burnaby, B.C.-based company GeoScan.

Whiting and his team searched an area of just over 37,000 square metres. The potential grave sites cover just 58 square metres.

“Truly a needle in a haystack kind of problem,” Whiting said.

Despite the large amount of area searched, Whiting said there is more ground that could be covered. Plans for continued scanning have not yet been made, but the search is finished at least for the winter.

Chooutla was run by the Anglican Church and was in operation between 1903 and 1969.

For most of the period following 1911, it was located in an area north of Nares Lake.

It was the first built of four residential schools in the Yukon and housed about 1,300 children during its operation, according to Know History’s Nicole Marion.

There are no firm plans to search the other Yukon school sites at this point. Members of the Working Group say that the decision to undertake a search needs to come from the local First Nation community.

In the case of Chooutla, the search was conducted at the invitation of and in partnership with the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.

The Archival Analysis

The number of deaths uncovered by Know History does not necessarily equal the number of potential grave sites, explained Whiting.

“That’s the total number of documented deaths that they’ve been able to identify from the records so far,” Whiting said. “And in many cases, indications are that they would have been buried in Whitehorse, or many other potential places.”

If a child was sick or injured, they would have likely travelled to Whitehorse for care at the hospital.

“We hope to learn more about who these children were, what they experienced, and where they are buried,” Marion said.

The number of deaths at the school documented by Marion’s team exceeded previously confirmed figures of how many students died at Chooutla.

Only 20 had been registered with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s Memorial register.

That being said, the Working Group said this past spring that the actual number was likely higher than 20, with estimates ranging up to 42.

This deeper dive into the records has given a more accurate figure after Marion and her team were able to remove from the list children who had been counted twice and those who they were able to show had died at a different residential school.

So far though, Know History is still unable to provide a complete picture because the federal government would not provide all the information they requested.

When they filed an Access to Information and Privacy request, Marion said, the government blacked out names and other information in some of the documents, due to what they said was privacy reasons.

“So, we have attendance lists, with no names,” Marian said.

Of the 1,300 children Marion said they identified as having attended Chooutla, they could only find names for 900.

“There are still children whose names we do not know, children whose cause of death we do not know,” Marion said. “And we do not know where the majority of these children have been buried.”

Marion said they are hopefully going to be able to find the documents they need after gaining access to records through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s database.

If they cannot find what they need in that database, she said, they will appeal the government’s decision to provide redacted records.

The Search

The team from GeoScan was at the school site for the past few months to try to figure out how many of these 33 children were buried at or near the school.

First, they gathered information from those who went to the school, from other community members and from initial information coming out of Know History’s work.

Next, they took this information and eliminated all the areas that would not make suitable burial sites, such as steep hillsides, or places with impenetrable bedrock.

They also looked for things like mounds or depressions, or other sorts of markings which may indicate a gravesite.

Some of the area was already open ground and some needed to be cleared of trees, but it was rugged enough to prove challenging to the technicians who had to push or pull the lawnmower-like scanning device across some challenging terrain.

“It’s hard work, especially on rough ground it’s quite strenuous for people,” Whiting said.

More areas may be cleared of trees in the future to widen the search area, though that has not been decided yet.

The device uses ground-penetrating radar to identify abnormalities in soil composition and structure to find places where the ground has been disturbed or there are any buried objects.

It does this by sending radio frequency waves down into the ground that bounce off of any changes in the composition of the ground.

It can pick up everything from differences in soil moisture, to old foundations, rocks, roots – anything underground that causes a soil disturbance.

What it can’t do, is identify exactly what an object is.

Whiting said it is not a “bone detector” and only provides simplified information that needs to be evaluated by a technical expert to even determine if it could be a signature of a potential grave.

To get better at finding those signatures, Whiting said, they train at actual graveyards to get an idea of the size, shape, depth and other characteristics of what a grave my look like when scanned by their device.

In those formal cemeteries, the graves are laid out in regular alignment, with standard burial practices that include markings and caskets.

At residential schools, Whiting said, this may not be the case.

“There’s evidence that burials were done secretly, maybe even under cover of night without using caskets, maybe even not as deep as properly should be done,” he said.

His team looks at four potential characteristics of a formal gravesite. If they find two to three of these criteria in a search area at a residential school, they mark that as a potential grave.

This has led to the findings of 15 sites that Whiting said have a “medium probability” of being burial sites at Chooutla.

To actually determine if these are graves, more invasive work needs to be done, something Whiting said is ultimately up to the community.

Other communities have made the decision to dig, though the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and the Working Group have not at this point.

Whiting did say there is an option to sample the soil to look for traces of DNA as a less-invasive way to try to confirm if they are actually burial sites.

What they have found, Whiting said, is consistent with the historical record uncovered by Know History, and it is consistent with what people who attended these schools said they experienced.

“The truth of residential schools has been known to people who lived that experience,” Whiting said. “What we find is consistent with their truth; with those who are able who are still with us to speak and who are willing to speak.”

He compared his work to shining a light on one part of the story.

As he shines his light, other researchers shine theirs and those with lived experiences shine theirs, a clearer and clearer picture of what happened at these schools appears.

“The intergenerational trauma is a very real thing,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re starting to develop a way out of that, by this work.”

Sandra Johnson, an elder advisor from the Working Group, echoed this sentiment.

“With trauma inflicted upon our ancestors and generations that followed is a wound that runs deep but within the depths of pain, there is also an opportunity for healing and transformation,” she said.

Originally published in The Whitehorse Star on September 27, 2023