'We’re all looking for closure': Shubenacadie Residential School survivor

Archaeologists will begin to investigate the former Shubenacadie Residential school grounds Saturday to explore whether there is any burial evidence on site.

Saint Mary’s University Associate Professor Jonathan Fowler will work with Roger Lewis, the Mi’kmaq cultural heritage curator for the Nova Scotia Museum, as a co-investigator. Fowler said the work is expected to take weeks and will rely on small teams using a variety of technologies including drones, ground-penetrating radar, magnetics, historical air photographs and lidar.

"We’re going to create a historical map of that hill and we are going to map every possible feature caused by human intervention on that hill from modern times right back through to could be thousands of years," Fowler said.

The archaeologist explained ground-penetrating radar will transmit a radio wave into the ground, and when done over a large area, can generate a map of what’s underground. Canada also has an air photo national library, which holds millions of historical photos of Canada. Fowler said the earliest photo from around the Shubenacadie Residential School dates back to 1938 —  eight years after it opened. The school closed in 1967 and the site is now home to a plastics factory.

"We use those images in a computer mapping environment to track landscape change. And you can imagine that’s a very important tool to then marry with your geophysics," Fowler said.

"Bear in mind this project is actually administered by the community. So I’m doing essentially the technical scientific side, but we’ll also be co-ordinating with folks in the community who will help direct us to areas that they think deserve special attention in the landscape."

Residential school survivor Marie Robinson lives beside the property and helped with previous ground penetrating radar searches that yielded no evidence graves or human remains. She said she was surprised to hear of another search happening so quickly.

"It’s a good thing, but it’s kind of unbelievable." she said. "In everyone else’s minds it’s behind that hill. Down where those barns are. I’m going searching through looking for old pictures. So we can tell where those old buildings were, 'cause there were."

Alan Knockwood, who attended the residential school, said the news was encouraging, but he also is skeptical anything will be found. Knockwood said the area was once an Acadian settlement and the area around the school has been farmed over.

NEVER WITNESSED ANYONE BURIED THERE

He said he never witnessed anyone buried there, but he has heard many stories from his older sisters and elders and he’s convinced it happened.

 "When we search for the school, we’re all looking for closure. This is a wound that keeps opening up and we’re not allowed to heal and each and every time a new chapter opens up we have to relive the entire book," Knockwood said.

The Sipekne'katik First Nation said Fowler's research has successfully mapped burials associated with 1873 sinking of the SS Atlantic and identified nearly 300 unmarked graves in the pre-deportation Acadian cemetery at Grand Pré National Historic Site of Canada.

Chief Mike Sack said the work had been top of mind for the band for many years but tragic discovery in Kamloops brought a renewed sense of urgency to the work.

"There needs to be reconciliation and accountability for these horrific acts which we unfortunately know all too well first hand. The prospect of a similar discovery in our community is difficult to consider, but we must fully assess the site," said Sack.

WHERE TO FIND HELP

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.