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No evidence found of unmarked graves related to Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The team of researchers searching for evidence of unmarked graves at the former Shubenacadie Residential School in Shubenacadie, N.S., has concluded its search without finding graves connected to the institution.

A statement from Sipekne’katik First Nation Wednesday said while the crews did find evidence of unmarked graves, those graves pre-date the period of the residential school by about 100 years and are connected to former landowners.

“As we said at the outset, our best hope would be to find no evidence of graves as we continue to grapple with the effects of the residential school system on our communities,” said chief Mike Sack in a news release.

“We know that people need closure and healing, we want our community and all Mi’kmaq people to know that we will re-open the search at any time if there is information that can provide further insights.”

The search in Shubenacadie came following news of the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children at other residential schools in Canada.

The Shubenacadie Residential School operated from 1929 to 1967, and the building burned down years later. A plastics factory is now at the site where the school once stood.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation lists the names of 16 children who died while at the institution and community members have said they fear children were buried at the site.

How the search was conducted

Saint Mary’s University archeologist Jonathan Fowler and Roger Lewis, a survivor of the school and a member of Sipekne’katik who is also an ethnologist and curator with the Nova Scotia Museum, used historical research, technological tools and cultural knowledge to guide and conduct their search. The group posted a video explaining the process. 

The team studied historical maps that pinpointed long-gone homes, sheds and barns that preceded the construction of the school, as well as aerial photos showing the school building, barn complex and staff residences of the Shubenacadie Residential School.

They also examined archival evidence, including one document from the 1800s that references the burial site of Irish immigrants James and Sarah Ellis, who lived there in the late 1700s.

They used LIDAR images — photos taken using lasers mounted on aircraft — that can reveal areas where the earth has been disturbed by human activity. The crew also deployed drones to create an extremely detailed digital map in which each pixel represents 2.5 centimetres on the ground.

no evidence found of unmarked graves related to shubenacadie residential school in nova scotia
The researchers used historical photos and maps, drone and LIDAR images, ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction to conduct their search. (Jonathan Fowler)

Team members walked 79 kilometres doing an electromagnetic induction survey that measures the ground’s ability to be magnetized and conduct an electric current. That type of survey can help discover things like buried ditches, field boundaries, pipes and the remains of buildings.

Ground-penetrating radar, a technique that has been used at other residential school sites in Canada, and was used in searches at the former Shubenacadie Residential School site in 2019 and 2020, was also used to explore what lies beneath the surface of the ground.

Although the search effort has concluded, Sipekne’katik First Nation encourages anyone with information to contact the band office.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.


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