WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
A year after the discovery of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school, First Nations across the country continue to excavate the grounds of the residential schools where children from their communities went.
This includes ongoing ground searches at many of Manitoba’s 14 residential school sites.
After last May’s discovery in Kamloops, survivors of Sandy Bay First Nation, on the western shore of Lake Manitoba, held a four-day vigil at the community’s elders center and lit a sacred fire.
“Throughout these four days, the elders shared stories of their time at the residential school they had in our community,” said Sandy Bay Coun. Randall Roulette.
“The possibility of unmarked graves has become part of the discussion,” he said. “The general consensus was that they wanted to do a ground search.”
The community met with Linda Larcombe, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba.
“Survivors and elders had stories of missing children and the fact that there might be graves in what they call the garden,” said Larcombe, whose team focused their research on the elders of the area identified as “the garden”.
“When the boarding school was occupied, this area had been used as an orchard and garden, and there was this cave area which was used, I assume, for prayer and reflection.”
Roulette says that at the vigil held last May, elders shared stories from that same garden.
“They weren’t allowed in. [the garden].… If they did, being children trying to enter this garden, they would be punished,” he said.
“They started putting two and two together and thinking maybe there was another reason they weren’t allowed in that area.”
Larcombe said that using drone imagery, ground-penetrating radar and information from the community, 13 potential unmarked graves were located.
Of the 13 sites, four have a moderate probability of being an unmarked grave, and the other nine have a low probability, she said.
The community received the results of the field research earlier this month and has not yet decided on the next steps.
Roulette said those hardest hit were seniors with memories of school.
“When [the data] was introduced to them, a lot of them right now, I don’t think they’ve really digested the reality of what might be true,” he said.
“There seems to be a desire or a desire to get more definitive answers.”
Roulette says he knows of at least 12 communities where the children who attended the Sandy Bay boarding school came from.
The next step for his community is to create a group to work with all communities affected by the harmful legacy of the school.
Research underway in Manitoba
Research is also underway in Manitoba at Cross Lake Boarding School at Cross Lake, Fort Alexander Boarding School in Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Creek Boarding School in Camperville and at the Brandon Boarding School.
A search was also launched at McKay Boarding School in Dolphin.
McKay Boarding School (sometimes spelled as MacKay Boarding School) had two slots: the one in Dauphin, which opened in 1957 and closed in 1969, and the one near The Pas and the Opaskwayak Cree Nation on Fisher Island, which operated from 1914 to 1933.
Last fall, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation also began ground research at the McKay site on Fisher Island. SNC Lavalin did the research pro bono for the community.
Each day of the search, which is expected to resume in June and run through the summer, begins with a ceremony, OCN Coun said. Edwin Jebb.
“We smudge the equipment and then we have a pipe ceremony to do before the dig and after the dig,” he said.
The community says that so far no unmarked graves have been found, which Jebb says is “a little relieved”, but only a fraction of the old school grounds have been excavated so far. here.
Opaskwayak also plans to begin field research of the Guy Hill residential school site in The Pas.
Jebb said it was planned to meet with survivors in late July “and talk about what kind of research we would have…if there are any stories we can flesh out, if anyone knows anything.
“It’s to bring peace of mind to people and do the ceremony.”
Norway House Cree Nation also plans to begin field research this summer at two sites: Norway House Residential School in Rossville and Notre Dame Home in Norway House.
No research in progress on certain sites
The building that housed the Portage la Prairie residential school sits on what is now Long Plain First Nation reserve land.
In the past, the community regularly conducted ground research before building on the land.
While there are areas near the school the community plans to investigate, they are waiting to see how other ground searches go, said Long Plain First Nation Lands Manager Adam Myran. .
“We are very interested in what is happening in Six Nations” in Ontario, he said, where police are now involved in an investigation into the deaths at the Mohawk Institute boarding school.
“They treat their [search] like a crime scene.”
Children from more than 20 communities were sent to the Portage la Prairie boarding school before it closed in 1975, so Myran wants to make sure those communities have a say in how any future searches for the grounds are conducted.
“Even though we have it on our land, so to speak, the school belongs to each nation that has sent children there, so things will be decided by a committee,” he said.
There is also currently no ground research at Churchill Boarding School, which was demolished in 1981, or Elkhorn Boarding School, which was demolished in 1951.
In 1990, former students and staff of the Elkhorn boarding school held a meeting and erected white crosses in the nearby cemetery, where several children forced to attend school were buried.
After the discovery of Kamloops, the Assiniboia Residential School Legacy Group, made up of survivors who attended this Winnipeg school, held a ceremony to bless the grounds around the building. This site now houses the Canadian Center for Child Protection.
This is where the group decided there was no need to search the ground around the school.
“There were never any words that I remember, or other students [recall]or even…stories about everything that went wrong, or about students being buried or taken away,” said Mabel Horton, who attended the school for six years, until she was 12.
It is unclear if a search of the Birtle boarding school in this southwestern Manitoba community will be conducted.
Last year the owner of the property said he was ready to sell it.
Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.