When Jackie Bromley heard that the remains of 215 children were found at the site of a former residential school in B.C., she had flashbacks to her time at St. Mary’s Residential School on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta.

Bromley, who is now 70, remembers students talking about graves behind the school when she was 10 — but doesn’t remember seeing any headstones.

“I thought about the backyard, apparently there were some graves there. And the first thing I thought of was, I wonder if there are some kids that were buried, you know?”

Bromley’s classmates were right — there were students’ graves in the schoolyard. A letter in 1945 from an Indian agent to the school’s principal requests that Indigenous workers be made to redig the graves next to the school, to make them even deeper.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) states that it’s difficult to place an exact figure on how many residential schools operated in Canada.

Kisha Supernant says it’s similarly hard to say just how many unmarked children’s graves there are.

Supernant, who is Métis and a descendant of the Papaschase First Nation, is an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She and her team use ground-penetrating radar equipment to help Indigenous communities survey burial grounds across the Prairies.

She said remote sensing techniques such as GPR and drones are crucial in surveying unmarked graves to ensure the sites are not physically disturbed.

“There is power in the scientific evidence we can provide. It shouldn’t be necessary, communities should be able to be listened to, but I am happy to support communities in that,” Supernant said.

“The ownership and access to all the data sits with the community…. This is not showing up and running a piece of equipment…. It’s a process of engaging with the community, with being attentive to the sensitivity of what we’re doing and the potential impacts it can have.”

At least 4,100 children died
Supernant as well as Indigenous leaders and advocates are calling on the federal government to fund the use of GPR equipment at former residential school sites across the country.

“This is part of reconciliation. This is part of the calls to action and I strongly believe that communities should be resourced to do the work that they need and want to do,” she said.

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has identified 139 residential schools across Canada — 25 of which were in Alberta. However, that number excludes schools that operated without federal support, such as those run by religious orders or provincial governments. Some schools also underwent name changes, or were relocated.