A community’s response to suspected burials is “a very sensitive conversation,” a guide from the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials points out. The Canadian government-funded independent body is composed of predominantly Indigenous Canadians and experts in archival research, archeology, forensics, and police investigations.
The guide notes that Indigenous communities may be reluctant to excavate, in part because of various laws, protocols, and teachings about honoring burial sites. Some families may want to move the remains to a more suitable burial place, but for others, the guide states, “the knowledge of survivors and other research may provide all the certainty they seek.”
Kimberly Murray, the Canadian government’s special interlocutor for missing children, unmarked graves, and burial sites, released a June interim report on how individual families and entire communities are searching for relatives and members whose fate or place of burial are unknown.
The report lists 16 Indigenous communities searching for anomalies and possible grave sites. Some searches have recovered unmarked burial sites at known cemeteries or near marked graves, while others have detected “potential unmarked burials.”
Abuse history prompted church basement dig
The former Pine Creek Residential School was operational from 1890 to 1969, and 21 children are known to have died there, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which keeps a list of children who died while at a residential school based on surviving Church and government records.
Chief Nepinak noted that the failure to find remains in the church basement is separate from the testimony about the abuse at the school.
“There’s still a living memory of tremendous atrocity, of abuse that happened ranging from physical to emotional to sexual abuse,” Nepinak told the The Canadian Press.
CNA contacted Pine Creek First Nation for comment but did not receive a response by publication.
Pine Creek First Nation has a registered membership of 3,170 people, about 1,200 of whom live on reserve land. The discovery of the anomalies in the church basement prompted the community to call in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) last year, The Globe and Mail reported. Though community leaders said that elders and community members had “additional knowledge and information in relation to these anomalies,” the RCMP investigation ended in July without finding any evidence of a crime, Manitoba RCMP said in a statement.
Sean Carleton, assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, told CBC News in August that the searches aim to learn the full truth about the residential school system rather than prove abuses happened. They are “part of that ongoing work of really understanding what was going on in that school specifically and with the system as a whole.”
He said it is important to realize that not all anomalies will be human remains.
If some anomalies prove to be graves, they could be graves of community members, children who were not students, or non-Indigenous school staff and their children, as well as nuns and priests, Scott Hamilton, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, told The B.C. Catholic in 2021.
Archbishop Gagnon told CNA the Catholic bishops have prioritized acknowledging “the tremendous suffering, trauma, and intergenerational trauma” caused by the schools. They have also prioritized “following up on Pope Francis’ apology” and his encouragement to take a path of solidarity with Indigenous peoples in support of truth and supporting Indigenous languages and culture. The archbishop noted the goal of assisting in “the ongoing work of truth-telling.”