Warning: This column deals with subject matter some readers might find upsetting.

Radar is an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging. If we wanted to be properly accurate, we’d still spell it RADAR or R.A.D.A.R. (Is it just me or do acronyms with the periods have more weight and a certain Cold War-esque cachet?)

Experiments that involved bouncing radio waves off of objects were going on in the late 19th century. These experiments took place in Europe where there weren’t a lot of settlers wanting access to land that already had Indigenous people living on it. 

A patent was issued to German inventor Christian Hülsmeyer in 1904, the same year the North West Mounted Police changed their name to the Royal North West Mounted Police. This organization was, of course, used to round up Indigenous children to be hauled off to residential schools. 

They became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920, nearly half a century after they were formed to help quell “lawlessness” in the west, i.e. removing Indigenous people from land they weren’t “using” and onto reserves.

By the early years of the 20th century, radar could be used to detect ships at a distance in foggy conditions. Which was useful when you wanted to shoot at them. 

By the Second World War, both the Allied and Axis powers had what we would now call modern radar systems, which could be used on land, at sea and in the air. The term that stuck – RADAR – came about in 1939, courtesy of the United States Signal Corps. At that point in history, radar was used more to facilitate mass death than to uncover it, the latter usage getting more of a workout lately.

The first patent for ground-penetrating radar (GPR) was issued to Germans Gotthelf Leimbach and Heinrich Löwy in 1910, who wanted to use it to find buried objects, but not, presumably, the graves of children. 

GPR is used to study what’s under the surface (of the ground, rock, ice, pavement, etc.) without disturbing it or otherwise being destructive. It has a great many applications, from earth sciences to civil engineering to space exploration to archaeology. 

GPR can help determine what the moon or Mars are made of, find bedrock or groundwater, utility lines under pavement, unexploded ordnance, or graveyards in Saskatchewan that are unmarked or that used to have headstones that may have been illegally removed in the 1960s. Locating the distant or recent past with this technology is called archaeological geophysics (a very cool job title).

The signal, which is an electromagnetic pulse, is directed into the ground. Items or structures underground will cause reflections of the signal, which a receiver picks up. These are then displayed on a readout, typically looking like a wavy pattern. 

In ideal conditions, GPR works as far down as 100 feet below the surface. While we think of a standard grave depth as being “six feet under,” some of the 182 graves revealed at St Eugene’s Mission residential school near Cranbrook, B.C. are much more shallow, at only three or four feet deep. 

Further complicating the issue is that if grave markers are not installed, or records are not well kept over time, specific grave locations are lost, and new graves are sometimes dug over or intersect with older burials. This can complicate scan findings.

GPR works for artifacts far smaller and far older than battleships in the fog. It can save time and resources seeing if anything is “there,” without having to start randomly digging. But like all technologies, it has its limitations. It works best in uniform, sandy soils, but poorly in clay or rocky terrain, among others.

It’s less of an issue how long things have been under the ground if there’s enough left of burial materials to reflect the signal. So theoretically, GPR could help detect graves centuries or millennia old, if, say, there are crypts or stone sarcophagi. 

A Bronze Age body only buried in a textile shroud, or an Indigenous child hastily buried between the years of 1831 and 1997, on the other hand, would likely not be detected, as the technology cannot pick up organic matter like skeletal remains. Bone, if near or in contact with soil, leaches its minerals within a few decades and takes on largely the same composition as the surrounding soil in most cases.

Of course, with ancient sites, we are often starting from scratch, or close to it. GPR can be used to help determine if there is any there there, since we have few records from millennia, or even centuries ago, for many areas. 

In other, more recent cases, we know where sites of note are, or can learn relatively easily based on records. Getting a hold of official records, from the Catholic Church, for example, often presents near-impenetrable difficulties, however.

Sometimes, though, it’s just a matter of paying attention to the right sources. Like, say, witnesses. Human memory can sometimes be unreliable, but being forced to dig the graves of your friends, family, and/or classmates, or just seeing the graves every single day, tends to stick with a kid.

When a specific area needs to be scanned, it’s done in a grid pattern, for example 50 metres by 50 metres. The device is a bit less than a foot square or rectangular, containing the transmitting antenna, and mounted on a wheeled frame. 

The transmitter has to be able to touch the ground, so long grass, brambles or other overgrowth would have to be cleared before scanning. Of course, when a former residential school has been turned into a golf resort, as the aforementioned St. Eugene’s has, the turf conditions are already conveniently ideal. Wonder if they found any surprises when they were building that golf course?

An operator pushes the device along like a lawn mower. When scanning for graves, the scan “lines” are done about 25 cm apart. The high frequency electromagnetic waves “bounce” back if they hit anything in the soil different from the natural soil structure and its stratification. 

The technology is actually similar to that used in medical ultrasound, such as is used with pregnant people. One version reveals future children, and the other reveals children from the past.

Disturbing soil, as happens with digging, not only disrupts the natural microlayers, but changes the soil’s subsurface electrical properties, so it’s different from the surrounding earth. GPR reveals these kinds of disturbed areas, in addition to underground structures like coffins.

Canada had 139 legally acknowledged residential schools, though actually had many more such institutions where Indigenous children were forcibly sent for over a century and a half, starting several decades before Confederation. There were also more than 350 such schools in the U.S. 

We know where they are. They range from a stone’s throw away from the Canada/U.S. border to above the Arctic Circle. Frequently, they were hundreds of kilometres away from the children’s homes, families and communities. The Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School was over 600 km away from Chanie Wenjack’s home. After he escaped, his body was found about 60 km away from the school.

Records have been hard to come by via the churches and governments that ran the schools, but we also have human records. We have living people who were sent to the schools and survived. Residential schools had mortality rates two to three times those of the general population. As noted, the people there saw the cemeteries every day. (Did your school have a graveyard? Mine didn’t.)

The first residential school in Canada, the Mohawk Institute in Brantford (the closest residential school to Waterloo Region) opened in 1831. It had been in operation for half a century when German physicists started experiments that would become the technology we know as radar. 

By 1910, when ground-penetrating radar received a patent, the Bryce Report on “Indian Schools,” outlining the appalling conditions and treatment of Indigenous children there, was already known. Have you heard of Dr. Bryce? Probably not. That’s intentional.

The final version of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Report, released in 2015, contains a full and detailed section on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials in Volume 4. These graves are only shocking or “discoveries” to those who have not paid attention to the TRC’s findings. Really, though, there are educational resources for everyone

The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has stated that as many as 25,000 Indigenous children may have died as victims of the residential school system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Register of Confirmed Deaths of Named Residential School Students and the Register of Confirmed Deaths of Unnamed Residential School Students only records 3,200. The Executive Summary of Volume 4, mentioned above, provides information that sheds some light on the substantial difference between these numbers.

Imagine if it was 25,000 white children. Can you even imagine that systematically happening to white children? Probably not. It’s still going on, by the way. More than 50 per cent of children in foster care in Canada are Indigenous. But of Canada’s total child population, Indigenous children make up less than eight per cent. 

Per testimony, not all of the children who never went home from residential schools were buried in the environs of those schools. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the exact number, or that their families and communities will find answers, or be able to return them home.

I was reading a newsletter the other week that posed a couple of questions for readers, which have been stuck in my head, along with these recent discoveries (that are not discoveries).

  • At what point does hiding the past hinder the future?

  • What do you think we do today that our descendants will hide?

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-4419. The Healing of the Seven Generations serves the Region of Waterloo and surrounding areas. 

Waterloo Region is located on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral (also known as the Chonnonton) people. 

This column was written, and Communitech’s offices are also located, on land that was included in Block 2 of the Haldimand Tract, also known as the One Dish One Spoon Treaty, which became the German Company Tract, and Waterloo Township. It was “created” via the Haldimand Treaty of 1784 and granted by Sir Frederick Haldimand, governor of Quebec, to the Haudenosaunee (at the time also sometimes referred to as the Six Nations or Iroquois), for their alliance with the British forces in the American Revolution. The Haldimand Tract extends 10 kilometres/six miles on either side of the length of the Grand River. Originally encompassing around 950,000 sq. km, today less than five per cent of this land remains territory of Indigenous people.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.