A First Nation in Manitoba is searching the grounds of a former residential school for unmarked graves.
Pimicikamak Cree Nation, also known as Cross Lake, said it plans to comb the grounds of former St. Joseph’s Residential School, which was managed by the Roman Catholic church.
“It seems like the more gravesites that are unmarked that are found, people tend to accept it as, ‘Oh, found another grave.’ And people forget these were children, and we have to make sure we find out what happened to these children,” said Cross Lake Chief David Monias Tuesday.
“What are their names? Where did they come from? Whose family are they? How did they die? And why were they buried in unmarked graves?”
Monias told a news conference that ground-penetrating radar will be used to search the site of the former school, which operated from 1912 to 1969 before being destroyed by fire.
So far, documents obtained from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas show 85 children died at the school, but not all are named.
“Our own local priest he came forward and said, ‘You know what? The diocese in The Pas, he wants to help. He’ll co-operate in any way you want, so we said, ‘OK’,” Monias said.
“Eighty-five children that are documented…have died in residential school. Unfortunately, some were actually (identified in the documents as) nameless boy or girl.”
St. Joseph’s residential school survivors and knowledge keepers will play a critical role in the search, according to the community.
Pimicikamak, located about 500 kms north of Winnipeg, intends to collect all relevant information from government, medical and church organizations, and build a database ofh the names of students and where they came from.
“They documented everything – whether it be the Indian agent, the priests, the nuns, Hudson’s Bay (store), the workers that came here, the fur traders,” Monias said. “So there’s a lot of historical records that are out there, and we also have the band membership status and also the band membership listing of all Pimicikamak citizens but also other First Nations.”
“We are trying to find the truth what happened,” the chief added. “We know the truth, but we don’t know the details. I know it’s going to bring a lot of hurt once we find out the details, but I think the more we know the more we can deal with what we know and be able to deal with it and move on.”
The school was destroyed twice by fire, Monias added.
The community plans to erect a permanent monument to honour the former students and all Cross Lake students that were sent to other residential schools.
A gathering will take place in the community as soon as all restrictions are lifted for community input.
“Dialogue leads to ideas, dialogue leads to problem solving, dialogue leads to healing,” the chief said, “and also dialogue leads to learning and developing information packages for our families, but also for our youth and young people that are not aware of what’s happening out there but will be impacted by these things.”