The work is heavy, but Péter Takács feels honoured to do it. He’s one of three employees with the British Columbia-based company, GeoScan, that’s been hired to search the site of the former Chooutla Residential School this month.
Takács, a ground-penetrating radar specialist, says it’s hard to put his feelings about the work into words. It’s even hard to organize them into thoughts in his own head. GeoScan typically performs ground-penetrating radar work around archaeological digs, geotechnical and geological surveys. Technically, the procedure is the same at the school site in Carcross. Emotionally, it has a different resonance and carries a different sense of responsibility. That’s why Takács says his crew is trying to focus on the individual tasks associated with their work.
“Obviously, we have it in mind that the final objective is to find unmarked graves, but we do have to be objective in the sense that we can’t make things up and do magic. We have to follow procedures,” he says. “All we can do is focus on our job and delivering the best results. Collecting quality data is the first stage.”
The way GeoScan does that is with a piece of equipment that looks like a lawnmower. The type being used in Carcross relies on an eight-channel system (versus a smaller, single-channel version) that transmits radar signals into the ground at a very high rate. Those signals can penetrate up to 10 metres deep. If they encounter any variation in the physical properties of the soil, those variations are reflected back.
However, they could signal anything from tree roots to soil that’s been excavated and put back. Both will change the properties of an area such that radar equipment can pick up on it. It’s only when GeoScan takes the data back to B.C. for analysis that they can start to determine the shape and size of what might be in the ground, as well as evidence of digging. Magnetometry and electromagnetic induction provide additional data.
In the two weeks the company has been working in Carcross, Takács says community members have come out to gather, visit and share their thoughts. Survivors of the school have offered pointers and advice on where to focus efforts.
Carcross/Tagish First Nation Chief Maria Benoit has been among them. Her mother went to Chooutla until her mother’s three-year-old sister died at the school of influenza. That’s when Benoit’s grandfather, himself a residential school survivor, pulled his kids from the school.
When the work started on June 5, Benoit told the News the community is anxious to hear GeoScan’s report. While they wait, she says people are working on their own healing.
“I think it’s important for people to seek their own truth,” she says. “To carry on in a good way and have ceremony for their families and their siblings that might have been here.”
For herself, part of that healing is a commitment to learning her language in 2024. Benoit’s mother spoke it her whole life, but didn’t teach her nine children.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to teach you kids the language because you’re gonna get strapped at school,’” Benoit says. “So some of us lost language. Our main goal now is to try and learn it and get it back.”
In the meantime, the community waits.
When GeoScan finishes surveying on June 15, Takács and his crew will fly back to B.C. to analyze data. What happens next will depend on findings, he says. If there are no abnormal variations, it will be up to the Yukon Residential Schools Missing Children Project to decide whether to bring GeoScan back to search additional areas. If there are variations, it’s once again up to the community to come together and decide how they want to proceed.
Contact Amy Kenny at email@example.com