Skip to content

Thunder Bay archaeologist ready to lend a hand on residential school investigations

Woodland Heritage Northwest's Dave Norris urges Indigenous communities to steer the protocol process

The discoveries of unmarked burial sites of Indigenous children at former residential school sites should provide a "bit of wakeup call" for Canadians on the treatment of Indigenous people and the institutions created for their assimilation, said a Thunder Bay archaeologist. 

"I think people will be surprised at the number (of sites) that exist," said Dave Norris, co-owner of Woodland Heritage Northwest. "I think it's going to be quite shocking." 

Of the 18 former residential school sites in Ontario, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 12 unmarked burial sites. The province believes there are likely more.

Woodland Heritage Northwest is a Métis-owned, Thunder Bay-based consulting firm that performs GIS and traditional knowledge mapping and archaeological and cultural heritage assessments for energy, road, natural resources and various development and infrastructure projects.

A graduate of Lakehead University's anthropology program, Norris is well acquainted with the remote sensing technology used to uncover these mass graves, namely ground penetrating radar (GPR), a technology that's become familiar with Canadians.

GPR was deployed by members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation to make the grim discovery of 215 children at the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia last month.

The discoveries of hundreds of these graves in B.C. – and now more than 700 burials at the former Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan – are of no surprise to Norris, having worked with Northern Ontario First Nation communities and heard the pained recollections of their members.

While he has not been involved with residential school site searches, Norris said he has worked on burial investigations at churches and occurrences where grave have been encountered accidently.

Norris isn't sure who will establish an appropriate step-by-step process to allow these investigations of burial sites to go forward. So many organizations could be involved.

"It can get pretty roguish, where people are running around trying to find these (sites). If there isn't any systematic requirements or regulations developed, it could be a bit of nightmare in that sense."

In mid-June, the provincial government announced it was providing $10 million to help with the investigations of these burial sites in Ontario. The government said it will identify the technical experts, such as archaeologists, forensic specialists and historians to lead the research, analysis and technical field work. The Canadian government is also contributing $27 million toward finding unmarked graves across the country.

Norris calls it a "nice gesture" but not enough to help communities begin the process of recording their oral histories to gain a better understanding of the scale and scope of what's out there.

Rather than let governments decide what protocols should be followed, Norris urges First Nations to come forward and steer the process.

"I think it needs to be community-led, " he said. "They know the stories. They have individuals within their communities that have experienced this.

"My firm has always let First Nations take the lead. We advise them on the best possible route they may want to take instead of being caught up in redundancies and wasting money.

"Our objective is the community's objective." 

The Canadian Archaelogical Association (CAA) recently reported that it has come to their attention that individuals, companies and organizations have been approaching Indigenous communities offering to do remote sensing work. The association is developing a set of guidelines and best practices on its website to provide resource material for communities to use on what to expect from these investigations and how to go about searching for burial sites. 

Norris said he would be happy to lend his expertise, if asked.

Due to the sensitivity of the situation, Norris said he has not done – nor will he do – any formal outreach to affected communities.

"We generally wait for communities to contact my firm. We are quite well established in northwestern Ontario. People know we're around.

"We have done burial investigations way up north and within the city limits of major areas within northwestern Ontario. We're fully equipped to handle that aspect."

He firmly believes archaeologists are the logical choice to help guide the process, being very methodical, systematic and respectful with their approach.

"We do this for a living," said Norris.

"I have participated in projects where, prior to anything happening, a ceremony was conducted and, in this case, it would be very appropriate for something like that to occur."

Norris advises communities to do their homework on what remote sensing technologies can and can't deliver. It still takes a trained eye to interpret the data.

In the case of ground-penetrating radar, Norris explained the images won't identify any human remains, just disturbances in the soil, such from digging a grave.

"The information kicked back is in the form of an anomaly, soil inconsistencies, and you have to interpret that as important or non-important," he said. "That takes lot of practise, a lot of education, in order to pinpoint and be confident in your assessment of those anomalies.

"They don't come across as graves per se; they're just anomalies below the surface that might be worthwhile investigating."

Generally, sandy soils are more receptive to allow radar signals to penetrate the ground than scanning through bedrock, which can pose huge problems in trying to determine what's there.

"You could see a large anomaly on the survey and it could be a large boulder. That's why you have to understand what you're looking at and where years of experience come in.

"You have to know soil type, the landscape you're looking at, and graves can be fairly shallow. But without any kind of background history with regards to these mass graves, we don't know how deep they dug, and how big they were, regarding size.

"Sometimes it's a shot in the dark."

With drone technology, archaeologists can create precise digital elevation models with image-processing software that can highlight possible sunken graves, not evident to eyes on the ground.

"A drone could capture fairly subtle changes in the landscape," Norris said. "Sometimes it can be just a matter of a couple of inches."

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used by researchers on the Prairies to identify old building foundations and even historic communal bison kill sites.

If asked, Norris said they would get involved in the exhumation of graves.

"I'm biased as an archaeologist, but I firmly believe we have the methodology to adequately excavate these remains in a careful and compassionate manner. Other professions don't have the culturally appropriate background to do this in that sense.

With likely many clandestine burial sites across Canada, Norris expects these discoveries will be a long drawn-out process, beginning with recording the oral histories of the former residential school students.

"This is an incredibly painful experience for these survivors. To have to recount that takes a lot of time and patience and understanding."