CARCROSS – It was a solemn day in Carcross Monday, as people came together to mark the beginning of the search for graves of former students who attended the Chooutla Residential School.
As it was said, many of those students never made it home.
“We are starting something here today that has been in the making for a very long time,” Kaa Shaade Heni (chief) Maria Benoit of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation said in her address to those gathered at the Haa Shagoon Hidi – formerly the Carcross-Tagish learning centre.
“This all began in Carcross, when it became clear that we had a responsibility to the missing. And to the survivors. And so today we begin that work of searching for our lost children.”
Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) will be used to search for the graves as part of the Residential School Missing Children Project.
The results are not expected to be known for months.
“Today marks an important day in our history, as we prepare to launch a search for unmarked graves here in Carcross – and other locations will follow,” said Judy Gingell, vice-chair of the Missing Children Project.
“As the ground search begins, we do not know what will be found.”
Gingell said the search will be carried out in all areas that were identified by former students, families and through thousands of records.
“What is known, from the stories and information, many Yukon First Nation students went to these schools – and some never made it home,” said Gingell, a former Yukon commissioner.
“Families and loved ones were left behind to mourn their loss.”
Gingell said they must ensure that the forgotten and lost are remembered and honoured.
“It is all our responsibility to uncover the truth, and acknowledge the past.”
She added, “While the search is underway, we are asking for people to refrain from attending at the site, allowing privacy, dignity and respect for the process and the community we are working in.”
The missing children project has confirmed at least 20 children died at the Chooutla Indian Residential school – but estimates the number could be as high as 42.
The school was built by the federal government and was operated by the Anglican Church from 1911 to 1969. It was demolished in stages
beginning in 1993 after having sat empty for years.
The radar project begins with scanning from the sky over a large area. The scans are used to create highly accurate 3D maps of the area, but do not penetrate the ground.
The ground-penetrating radar uses energy pulses to search in the ground. The technician pushes the GPR around like a lawnmower, looking for changes in the soil and rocks below.
Areas of focus include the garden, a small, fenced area in the woods, the ice rink location and other areas identified from survivor input, records research and community input.
The information is stored in a field computer to be analyzed later. Technicians may also use other types of scanning.
Over several months, technicians will review the data and look for areas in the scan that could indicate changes or a break in the soil layers that could have resulted from digging.
It’s expected that analyzing all the data will take several months.
The results will then be passed on to the First Nation, which will then decide how to proceed.
Geophysical investigations at former Indian residential schools are happening across Canada.
In addition to speakers Benoit and Gingell, Premier Ranj Pillai addressed the gathering.
Pillai said the Yukon government is committed to listen, learn and acknowledge the truth of the legacy of residential schools in the Yukon.
“Your work to uncover the truth about children who went missing from Yukon residential schools and bring closure and healing to families and communities is critical for Yukon’s path towards reconciliation,” said Pillai.
The premier said the government has committed $1.3 million over three years to support the search for the truth about what happened to children in residential schools in the territory.
Pillai encouraged everyone to reach out to supports that are available across the Yukon.
“We know that healing is not a one-time event but a journey that requires sustained effort and the support of a whole community,” he said.
“I believe this work will lead us towards a society where the wounds of the past are not forgotten, but rather transformed into a source of strength, resilience and unity.”
The Carcross/Tagish chief said they know children arrived at Chooutla from communities across the Yukon, northern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.
“And some never came home,” Benoit said.
“Today is for each of them. And it is for all of us too – survivors, family members, friends, communities that have borne the burden of the school’s legacy.
“We hope that the work we are starting here today can help us all find answers, and hopefully some peace, because our communities have hurt for a long time.”
Benoit thanked Gingell and Adeline Webber, the chair of the project who will soon be sworn into her new job as the territory’s next commissioner.
“I want to close by saying that these are still difficult days for our children,” said Benoit.
“As we remember the young people lost at that school, let’s also keep in our hearts the children we’re losing today to drugs, to violence, to
“As we go forward together in a good way, let’s let this work at the Chooutla Residential School be a reminder to us that we have a commitment, a commitment to all of our children, and a commitment to make this world a better and fairer place for each of them.”
Webber said, “Through the stories, from the families and residential school records, we know some Yukon students – many of our loved ones – died at these schools and never returned home.
“Our families have been left with a hole in their hearts. They deserve answers and, more importantly, they deserve some sense of peace,”
Following the formal addresses, the gathering moved outside to the former site of the residential school, where a sacred fire was burning.
The Yukon search initiative was announced shortly after the detection of 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School in
B.C. in 2021.
The Residential School Missing Children Project (RSMCP) was initiated with First Nation representatives, from a number of Yukon communities, helping guide the work.
Researchers have spent months sifting through archives to determine the identities of missing children from former residential schools around the territory.
These schools were in Carcross, Dawson City, Whitehorse and Shingle Point. The information also includes three former hostels used to house First Nation students.