Emotions ran high in a Yukon First Nations community Monday as officials announced the search for unmarked graves would begin at a former residential school site.

Yukon's Residential School Missing Children Project said ground-penetrating radar would be used to look for gravesites at the Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, about 70 kilometres south of Whitehorse.

Carcross-Tagish First Nation Chief Maria Benoit said the search is important for the community in its bid to find answers and peace in the residential school tragedy, where countless children taken from their families did not return home.

"We are starting something here today that has been in the making for a long, long time," Benoit said of the project, which was announced in 2021 after the discovery of more than 200 suspected unmarked graves on the site of the former Kamloops Residential School in B.C.

"This all began in Carcross when it became clear that we had a responsibility to the missing and to the survivors. And so today, we begin that important work of searching for our lost children."

The announcement held at the Carcross/Tagish Learning Centre was accompanied with a ceremony of singing, drumming and healing prayers, but it was interrupted by a woman who objected to the proceedings being on camera, saying the announcement was "not a showcase."

In an emotional statement, the unnamed woman came to the microphone and said the event was about the school's survivors and the missing children, not to sing, dance and celebrate.

The complaint led organizers to cut short the ceremony and shift the gathering to the site of the Chooutla school.

Carcross-Tagish First Nation cultural ambassador and educator Gary Johnson, who led part of the event, said he understands the traumatic nature of the residential school tragedy, but added that ceremony can be a valuable tool of healing.

Launch of search for graves at former #Yukon residential school triggers raw emotions. #UnmarkedGraves #ResidentialSchools #ChooutlaResidentialSchool

Johnson, who appeared on stage with his grandmother Sandra, a Chooutla survivor, said the experience of singing songs with her in a traditional Carcross Tagish environment served as a powerful healing process for his family.

"She's never lost who she was or is," Johnson said of his grandmother's experiences at Chooutla. "I'm learning so I can be with my grandma, so we can have that closeness, because things have been lost, and … it's time to start bringing everything back, including things like ceremony."

As well as ground-penetrating radar, drones operated by surveying company GeoScan will also be used to locate possible unmarked graves at the former school site.

Researchers have already spent months interviewing survivors and witnesses, as well as going through thousands of records and documents to narrow down the zones where the searches will take place.

A community report on the results is scheduled to be completed by the end of summer.

The Chooutla Residential school was one for four such facilities in the Yukon, the others were located in Whitehorse, Dawson City and Shingle Point.

Researchers said students at Chooutla came from all over the territory, as well as parts of the Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

GeoScan ground-penetrating radar specialist Peter Takacs said the time it takes to survey a site can be highly variable.

"It depends on the site complexity," Takacs said. "So, if we are looking for something that really stands out within an environment, that's fairly easy to find. If you are looking for something that's really hard to find, we need to look at the data from different angles, and we may have to process the data using different parameters."

Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai attended the announcement on Monday and said people should be ready to support each other when needed during the months-long wait for results, which can be trying on survivors and other victims.

"Waiting for the results of this scan will not be an easy task for any of us as we think about what has happened to these children," Pillai said.

"We need to make those connections to help each other through this difficult time."

Benoit said dealing with these "difficult days" also means dealing not only with the residential school tragedy, but also with ongoing challenges facing today's Indigenous youth.

"As we remember the young people lost at that school, let's also keep in our hearts the children that we're losing today through drugs, to violence, to despair," she said. "As we go forward together in a good way, let's keep this work at the Chooutla Residential School to be a reminder to us that we have a commitment … to all our children."

— By Chuck Chiang in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.

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