'Unanswered questions': Search of former N.S. residential school grounds begins

Guided by GPS, Johnathan Fowler walks through fields in Shubenacadie, N.S. with ground penetrating instruments, recording images of what lies below.

On the surface, it might look like simple work. But Fowler, a landscape archeology researcher, carries the immeasurable weight of generations of Indigenous people who want to know if there is burial evidence in the fields where Shubenacadie Indian Residential School once stood.

“It’s an extremely consequential project for the community and for all of us as Canadians,” Fowler told CTV National News. “We’ve got the most detailed mapping ever produced.”

Sipekne'katik First Nation launched the investigation following last week's announcement of the 215 unmarked graves found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. A similar search conducted a few years ago turned up nothing, but since then technology has changed and so has the sense of urgency.

“It’s going to take generations to repair, but we need to stick together and make sure it happens,” Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack told CTV National News.

From 1930 to 1967, thousands of Indigenous children from across the Maritimes and as far away as Quebec were taken from their families and forced to live at the church-run facility in Shubenacadie, where survivors say they faced abuse and neglect.


Researchers say the process of surveying the land likely won’t yield any results for a few weeks -- though some hope that they won’t find anything at all.

"Standing up here, right at the moment, I can visualize the children I was here with,” says Roger Lewis, a survivor of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and member of the search crew. "There's a lot of unanswered questions here and if we can assist in any way and help resolve some of those outstanding issues then I think the community deserves it."

Officially, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has identified 16 children who died while at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, but community members fear there may be more.

Researchers say that ground conductivity meters and a new device, called an EM 38 Mark II, will be used like a radar, rolling over the former playground of the residential school to reveal if there are any graves below the surface.

Fowler is working directly with community members and Mi'kmaq cultural heritage curator for the Nova Scotia Museum, Roger Lewis, as a co-investigator.


If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here