WARNING: This story includes distressing details.
A Manitoba First Nation is weighing next steps in its search of a former residential school site after no human remains were found during the excavation of a Catholic church basement.
Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as Pine Creek First Nation, excavated 14 anomalies found in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, which were first detected using ground-penetrating radar.
The Pine Creek school was run by the Roman Catholic Church and operated from 1890 to 1969 in different buildings, including the church, on a large plot of land.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation recorded the deaths of 21 students who were at the Pine Creek school. Survivors had also told horror stories about the church’s basement.
Though a number of items were recovered during a four-week excavation, including animal bones and debris from a fire, none suggested evidence of human remains, said Chief Derek Nepinak of Minegoziibe Anishinabe.
The initial search also revealed 57 other anomalies on the grounds around the church and old school site. Nepinak said the community is now discussing the best path forward, including if further excavation needs to be done.
While there was no evidence of human remains found under the church basement, that doesn’t mean the process is complete, he said.
“We don’t know if those will require excavation or not, they might but it’s going to be up to the community and the elders to give us direction on what our next steps are going to be,” he said.
“And if they say we’ve done enough, then that will be enough and we’ll wrap it up. But I haven’t heard that yet. So until I hear that, we’re going to continue forward.”
Doesn’t take away from history: chief
The results also don’t take away survivors’ lived experiences, he said.
“I think it’s inappropriate for someone to say, ‘well, hey, look, they didn’t find any burials so school, must have been OK — It wasn’t OK,” he said.
“There’s still a living memory of tremendous atrocity, of abuse that happened ranging from physical to to emotional to sexual abuse.”
These searches are not about proving that abuses happened, but about learning the full truth about the residential school system, said Sean Carleton, an assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba.
“[It’s] 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.
Carleton, who has written and lectured about residential school denialism, said it’s also important to realize that not all anomalies found on residential school sites will end up being human remains.
That’s not something ground-penetrating radar can confirm, so these types of searches are still important to do, he said.
“I think an educated Canadian populace will be able to see through denialist talking points and see the announcements by Pine Creek as an example of Indigenous communities doing the work of trying to learn the full truth of the system.”
Nepinak says the community held a ceremony Friday after the results were shared.
He says he thinks it might be difficult for some community members to accept the results but hopes people can move forward in a good way.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.
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