Using ground-penetrating technology, members of The Kaatagoging Survivors Group of the St. Mary’s Residential School Survivor Project in Kenora, Ontario, have discovered “at least 171 anomalies” or “plausible burials” within cemetery grounds that were once associated with a residential school — a “tragic first” for the province, according to government officials.
Wauzhushk Onigum Nation announced the heartbreaking news on Tuesday after an eight-month-long search conducted by The Kaatagoging Survivors Nation’s technical, archaeological and GPR team, informed by survivor testimony, with financial support from both Canada and Ontario.
Of the 171 plausible burials found on the site associated with the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, only five grave markers were located.
“The remaining are unmarked by any grave or burial markers,” reads a statement issued by Wauzhushk Onigum. “The site has been secured consistent with the Nation’s Anishinaabe protocols.”
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, at least 36 students died while attending St. Mary’s, which prior to 1938 went by several names including St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School, the Kenora Boarding School and The Rat Portage Boarding School.
The institution closed for good in 1972, but Wauzhushk Onigum Chief Chris Skead told CBC on Tuesday that the more than 50 survivors of the school still reside within the First Nation.
“The Nation’s next steps are to gain greater certainty on the number of plausible graves in the cemetery grounds using additional technologies and to conduct additional investigations at several additional sites not covered during the initial investigations that are in the vicinity of the school,” reads the statement issued on Tuesday.
“These additional sites have been identified through survivor testimony, archaeological assessment, and archival investigations that show burial rituals being conducted by former Residential School staff. Some of the sites to be investigated are on private lands and the Nation is continuing to pursue access to these.”
Wauzhushk Onigum is asking for privacy at this time and says additional findings will be released as they emerge.
An estimated 150,000 children attended Canada’s Residential School System between 1831 and 1996, thousands of whom died while within their care. At least 18 of these institutions, which existed with the purpose of assimilating Indigenous students into Euro-Canadian culture, are known to have been located in Ontario.
St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, like many of the widely condemned and abolished institutions, was operated by the Roman Catholic Church.
“Former students regularly describe overwhelmingly negative experiences in which extreme physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse pervaded,” reads the release issued by Wauzhushk Onigum Nation on Tuesday.
“Over 6,000 children are known to have died, however records are incomplete, and this number is believed to be much higher.”
Please see my statement below on the discovery at former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School: pic.twitter.com/Ga66rDjPss
— Greg Rickford (@GregRickford) January 17, 2023
Federal and provincial ministers were expected to meet with the First Nations on Tuesday to discuss matters including resources to continue the Kaatagoging Survivors Group’s investigation.
“The news from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation is heartbreaking. Today’s discovery, the result of an eight-month investigation, is a tragic first for Ontario,” said the province’s Minister of Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford, who is also MPP for Kenora-Rainy River, in a statement on Tuesday.
“As we continue to uncover the truth of our collective past on the journey toward reconciliation, we will continue to support these investigations and will support healing for survivors, their families and community members suffering from mental health and addictions due to intergenerational trauma and harms inflicted by the Indian Residential School system.”
Chief Skead said similarly on Tuesday that “both Canada and Ontario have continued to express their commitment to reconciliation, to the truth, and to the healing of our communities,” noting that the First Nations look forward to “hearing if they will continue to honour these commitments.”
“Since 2105, we have had to exercise additional caution on all projects in the community that require any physical disturbance to the land in fear of disturbing the children,” said Skead in his statement.
“Finding the truth and exercising caution on everything touched by this genocidal legacy comes at a price and it’s a price our Treaty partners need to be prepared to pay. That is true reconciliation.”