Two Manitoba First Nations excavate sites of former residential schools and find anomalies

WINNIPEG — The chiefs of two Manitoba First Nations say their communities are still searching for answers after finding possible graves using ground-penetrating radar at the sites of former residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church.

Sagkeeng First Nation found 190 soil anomalies and Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation located six. Initial data shows the irregularities meet some of the criteria for the graves, but both communities say more information is needed.

The news was recently shared with members of the community.

“We’re going to take our time and make sure we’re doing the right thing,” said Sagkeeng manager Derrick Henderson.

Sagkeeng’s efforts began last year. Residential school survivors shared their memories of areas they believe may have graves related to the Fort Alexander residential school.

The school was opened in 1905 in the community of Fort Alexander, which later became the Sagkeeng First Nation. It lasted until 1970 and had a reputation for abuse. Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about starvation and harsh discipline.

The community worked with a drone company that made ground-penetrating radars on three levels.

Henderson said he found two locations with anomalies. Neither is a known cemetery, but both were places residential school survivors had marked on maps before the search began.

Henderson said leaders will consult with elders, survivors and pipe-bearers to decide next steps to confirm if there are any graves.

“How can we start digging? Henderson mused. “I probably have to bring in archaeologists. There is still a lot of work to do. »

When the information was shared with community members, they held a party and ceremony, he said.

Many community members are grappling with unanswered questions as new anomalies are discovered, Henderson said. It will take time to find certainty, he added, and only then can closure and healing begin.

“Now we know the locations. Now we know there is something.

At the Minegozibe Anishinabe First Nation, six anomalies lie beneath a church on the site of the former Pine Creek residential school, Chief Derek Nepinak said.

Survivors had asked for the area to be examined because of “horror stories” about what had happened in the basement of the church, he said.

The First Nation is treating the area as a potential crime scene, he said.

“We’re looking for answers, but what we’re doing is coming up with more questions,” he said.

Minegoziibe Anishinabe has also hired a drone technology company specializing in ground penetrating radar. The company used a trolley to search the ground under the church due to the confined space, a notice from the community said.

Survivors and community members ordered leaders to do another more detailed radar search of the basement.

The community is still awaiting results from another area which is suspected to have unmarked burial sites, the chief said.

Pine Creek School operated from 1890 to 1969 in a few different buildings on a large lot. The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation has a record of 21 child deaths at school and survivors have long spoken of abuse at the facility.

Nepinak said the First Nation has gone through records and knows of dozens of children who died while attending school, but there may be others who are not part of this story.

Healing will take time, he said. The hope is that it will inform future generations.

“We want the truth to be told and the truth to be known.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their loved ones suffering from trauma brought on by the memory of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 11, 2022.

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