Winnipeg gathering a way for Indigenous communities, researchers to share stories of unmarked grave searches

Researchers, academics and Indigenous people from all over the country are gathering in Winnipeg this week to share what they’ve learned in their search for unmarked graves at former residential schools.

About 250 people took part in the Remembering the Children gathering on Sunday and Monday, hosted by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, with more participating virtually.

Organizer Brenda Gunn says initiating the search for potential graves can be challenging and lengthy, with a number of roadblocks along the way.

“This work is going to take decades,” said Gunn, who is the academic and research director at the centre, which is based in Winnipeg.

“From doing the research work before you hit the ground to interpreting the data once the ground search is done and then deciding what to do, what steps might need to be taken if there are potential graves that have been identified.”

A woman wearing an orange shirt and glasses stands in front of a blue and red piece of art.
Brenda Gunn is the academic and research director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (Joanne Roberts/CBC)

Those challenges can be lessened by sharing information and best practices, Gunn said.

“By bringing together different researchers who have different experiences in doing that archival research, in doing the oral history, we can really share experiences and learn from one another … We’re really try to share information across the communities who are doing these projects,” she said.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba has been working to identify burial sites at and around the former Brandon Residential School since 2012.

Elder Lorraine Pompana, who is a retired counsellor from Sioux Valley and a residential school survivor, believes her community’s decade of work trying to get more information about those who died in residential schools to their living family members can help others.

A woman with grey hair and a white polka dot shirt looks at the camera. Tables of people are in the background.
Lorraine Pompana from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is involved in the search for unmarked graves at the Brandon Residential School, where she attended. (Joanne Roberts/CBC)

“Getting information from the various groups here that are doing the same objective work is gonna help everybody down the road,” Pompana said. 

“I think there’s going to be more connections as we go along … that gives us the responsibility and the commitment to keep on proceeding.”

The First Nation has identified 104 potential graves in three cemeteries, but only 78 are accounted for through historical records, the chief has said previously in a statement.

It’s especially important to connect with people from across Canada because the children who were forced to attend Brandon Residential School came from all over the country, said Katherine Nichols, the First Nation’s project manager in charge of their search for the missing children.

“Trying to identify the affected communities and the living family members is really essential to the next steps for these investigations,” Nichols said.

She said it’s been invaluable connecting with other researchers to talk about challenges they’ve faced, including accessing privately-owned land to search for burial plots and searching through archival information.

Nichols is hopeful in the next year or two there will be legislation to help navigate those scenarios as more and more communities initiate searches for potential unmarked graves.

“I think Canada has to be prepared that these searches will be ongoing for many years to come. Survivors continue to come forward with areas that need to be searched and the names of missing children that need to be found.”

‘Children have been waiting for us for a long time’

Darrell Boissoneau, from Garden River First Nation, also known as Ketegaunseebee, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also took part in the event in Winnipeg.

The cultural manager and special projects manager for the Ojibway band says it’s important for Canada to know the truth of what happened to Indigenous children in residential schools.

“Our rights have always been swept under the rug. We’ve been considered less than human,” he said.

A man with a goatee wearing a ball cap looks at the camera. Tables of people stand in the background.
Darrell Boissoneau is the cultural manager and special projects manager for Garden River First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Joanne Roberts/CBC)

Boissoneau says he hopes the gathering helps charts the course for different communities who are in different places in their search for justice.

“If you look across the country, everybody is at different stages. Some people have already started the ground penetration, some haven’t, some are just starting. We’re at different levels,” he said.

“Those children have been waiting for us for a long time and now that we’re here, we can begin that really important work that’s ahead of us.”

The Remembering the Children gathering will continue on Tuesday, with a focus on commemorating the lives of those who died in residential schools and healing from those losses, as well as protecting the sites where graves are found.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

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

Mental health counselling and crisis support is 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 at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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