Opaskwayak Cree Nation prepares to search 2 former residential school sites for unmarked graves

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

On a northern Manitoba First Nation not far from the Saskatchewan border, a community is taking the first steps to prepare to search two nearby former residential school sites for unmarked graves.

Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair said elders on Opaskwayak Cree Nation, a First Nation of a little more than 6,000 people near The Pas, Man., are being consulted ahead of a ground-penetrating radar search Sinclair hopes will start within a month.

Those who were forced to attend the McKay or Guy Hill residential schools, or have knowledge based on relatives who went, will help map out which particular areas around the two sites to search — and how much land needs to be covered, he said.

“[It’s about] how we bring the healing process and work together to bring this to light to our community for their family members, first and foremost, to have that dignity for those bodies,” Sinclair said.

“Whether it’s one or a hundred or a thousand, it’s about bringing justice to those bodies that are buried there.”

The radar work is being offered for free by SNC-Lavalin, he said, and was prompted by the discovery of unmarked graves near the former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C., nearly two months ago.

A spokesperson for that company said last month it sent a letter to 50 Indigenous community leaders offering free ground-penetrating radar work at the urging of its employees.

Sinclair said community leadership on the First Nation considered that offer and decided to move forward with the search.

‘We don’t have all the information’

Louis McGillivary said many of his relatives, including his mother, were forced to attend the McKay residential school in the area.

He said he’s not sure whether any unmarked graves will be found when the site is searched. But as the number of likely burial sites discovered near former residential schools across the country continues to grow, McGillivary said he’s glad it’s happening.

“We don’t have all the information, and we’re discovering now that lots of that information was withheld or … people didn’t want to talk about [it],” the 72-year-old Opaskwayak Cree Nation member said.

Elder and former Opaskwayak chief William George Lathlin said he hopes the search brings out the truth, whatever that is, so people in his community can move forward.

The former McKay Residential School is pictured. The school was destroyed by fire in 1933. Another school with the same name opened in Dauphin more than two decades later. (Manitoba Historical Society)

“We need to tell the truth the way it is, however horrible or terrible or nice it may be. Because if we don’t do that, if we don’t bring whatever happened into the light, we carry that on,” the 80-year-old said.

“I don’t want people to be carrying this for the next hundred years.”

Sinclair said he encourages anyone with information about potential graves near the sites to reach out to him.

Sites now near gathering spot, airport

The site of the former McKay residential school — which burned down in 1933 and was rebuilt in Dauphin, Man., more than two decades later — is located about 10 kilometres north of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Sinclair said.

It’s on Fisher Island, one of the areas where the community hosts gatherings in the summer.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the Anglican-run school was marked by poor quality food, staff tensions and frequent runaways which led staff to lock doors, potentially trapping children inside in the event of a fire.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation OneKanew Christian Sinclair says he encourages anyone with information about potential graves near the sites to reach out to him. (CBC)

The former Guy Hill residential school site is a little bit further, about 40 kilometres northeast of the First Nation. It’s near Clearwater Lake, where The Pas Airport stands today, Sinclair said.

One survivor of that Catholic-run school told the commission she had been abused physically, sexually and emotionally there.

There are also several references of children being beaten so badly at residential school in The Pas that they were left with welts and bruises.

Sinclair said the search of those two sites will also need to consider possible deaths linked to the former Clearwater Lake Sanatorium, which once housed tuberculosis patients nearby.

Moving into the future

Sinclair said he hopes that by examining the past, Opaskwayak’s search can help push Canada into a new future.

“How do we move forward together? [How do we create] a positive environment to learn and address these and right these wrongs of the past?” he said.

For McGillivary, the recent discoveries across the country have felt like something of a reckoning.

He said he hopes those findings, however grim, will help non-Indigenous people better understand the legacy of Canada’s residential school system.

“It’s important that … we know what happened and understand it,” he said.

“So the closer we get to that, reconciling the history, I think the better off we’re going to be as a society.”

Sinclair said he expects an update from Opaskwayak Cree Nation councillor Edwin Jebb on the search plans on Tuesday.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.

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