Blue Quills Residential School Ground Search for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves

Joel Cardinal is a Néhiyaw from Saddle Lake Cree Nation and the Manager of ReconciliACTIONs at the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

Last summer, Blue Quills University announced they would be conducting a ground search for unmarked burial sites of children who attended Blue Quills Indian Residential School (IRS). It was first a boarding school located in Lac La Biche, Alberta before being moved to Saddle Lake Cree Nation in 1898. The school was relocated to its current location near the town of St. Paul, Alberta in 1931. The federal government announced it was closing Blue Quills IRS in 1970, but members of the local First Nations began a 17-day sit-in. This protest ended with the federal government handing the school over to the Blue Quills Native Education Council. Today, it is known as University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’i
nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, or Blue Quills University.

Blue Quills is currently owned by seven surrounding First Nation bands and offers university programs from the bachelor’s to the doctorate level.

My name is Joel Cardinal. I’m a member of and currently reside in my home community of Saddle Lake Cree Nation. As the Manager of ReconciliACTIONs at the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, it’s important to me to share my perspective of the ground search at Blue Quills so that we may build understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. As the son of a residential school Survivor, sharing my story is deeply personal as my father was forced to attend this institution for eight years as a child.

I previously worked with residential school Survivors, interviewing them as part of the settlement agreement so I carry many painful stories that come from Blue Quills IRS. However, my dad has not been open about his experience there until phase 1 of the ground search at Blue Quills. I had the opportunity to interview my dad and he opened up to me about some of his experiences for the very first time.

In early August 2022, Blue Quills University began phase 1 of its ground search. The search was focused on using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to search a 1.3-acre section of the 250-acre site. Phase 1 also involved capturing Survivor stories through interviews to identify areas for future searches. With community dialogue and healing gatherings, this phase offered opportunities for healing and connection for Survivors and their families.

The phase 1 search results were shared in a ceremony at Blue Quills in April. Dr. Kisha Supernant from the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology led the ground search at the invitation of Blue Quills University. In ceremony, she shared with Survivors, families, and community members that in the 1.3-acre section, her team found 19 reflections of interest. They are not yet referring to these as unmarked burial sites as more research is needed. She acknowledged there is no standard on what language to use when discussing GPR results as many groups use different terminology.

Phase 2, which has already been planned for Blue Quills, will involve using a method called light detection and ranging (LIDAR) to advance the search in addition to ground penetrating radar.

As I share my reflections over the next few blog posts, I want you to keep in mind that every ground search is unique. Depending on the communities that had children attend that particular residential school, they may have traditional laws and protocols that guide their search. Funding, federal recognition, and culture, all play important roles in these ground searches. The blog posts I share are my reflections only. They are meant to give my first-person account of what it’s like to conduct a ground search for missing children from my community.

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