Yukon Residential School Missing Children Project hosts Healing Today for Tomorrow conference in Whitehorse

GeoScan geophysicist Jack Goozee discussing future plans for geophysics ground search efforts in the Yukon (Photo: S. Bonell)

Representatives from KnowHistory, GeoScan, National Centre for Truth and Reconiliation, and Yukon First Nations share knowledge and supports.

The Yukon Residential School Missing Children Project is meeting for its Healing Today for Tomorrow conference in Whitehorse, this week.

Tuesday’s agenda had remarks from Yukon First Nations leaders, including Ta'an Kwäch’än Council Chief Amanda Leas, Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Sean Smith, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Pauline Frost, Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston, and project chair Judy Gingell. Commissioner of the Yukon and former project chair Adeline Webber delivered the keynote address before lunch.

In the afternoon, Jack Goozee from GeoScan gave a presentation on how his geophysics team uses ground-penetrating radar to perform ground searches at residential schools, including Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, and more recently, Yukon Hall and Coudert Hall in Whitehorse. The results from the Whitehorse ground search are not yet available, but the results from Chooutla remain unchanged since September: 15 anomalies that GeoScan calls “potential” grave sites.

Goozee made clear in his presentation that the only way to confirm whether potential grave sites contain human remains is through excavation; which is very invasive. However, another form of science may be available to contribute to the investigations.

Micaela Champagne, a Cree and Métis archaeologist with full-service residential school researchers askîhk (ah-SKEEK) Research Services, a, gave a presentation on soil spectroscopy, and how it identifies adipose, or fatty acids and salts, in soil to determine whether human remains had been present in the soil.

Champagne acknowledged that, much like ground-penetrating radar, LiDAR, and every other tool being used for ground searches, soil spectroscopy is NOT perfect, and the only way to confirm suspicions about human remains is to excavate the area.

To date, not a single First Nation in Canada has chosen to excavate sites near former residential schools.

KnowHistory Director of Digital History Tom Van Dewark closed the first day of the conference with a presentation discussing his team’s work in identifying students and student deaths at residential schools in the Yukon. Van Dewark says that work is ongoing for Chooutla Residential School, and has only just begun for facilities in Whitehorse. So far, just over 1400 students have been identified at three schools in the capital. Van Dewark acknowledged that this number is low, but expects to continue to identify students as the work carries on.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation delivered a presentation on Wednesday Morning, discussing the process and importance of statement gathering. Senior Archivist Jesse Boiteau said that across three categories, NCTR is safeguarding 4 million records, with over 20 million expected to come in from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and other sources.

Boiteau clarified that the data and statements provided by survivors, communities, and First Nations still belong to them, and are merely safeguarded by NCTR.

The Yukon Residential School Missing Children Project’s conference ended Wednesday afternoon.

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