First Nation in Northern Manitoba reports 187 anomalies found on or near site of former boarding school

WARNING: This story contains details about boarding school experiences.

A First Nation community in northern Manitoba reports that ground-penetrating radar has found 150 anomalies at the site of a former boarding school, including what appears to be 59 unmarked graves in a nearby cemetery.

The Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief also says 37 anomalies were found off-site, more than a kilometre away from St. Joseph’s Residential School.

The anomalies – places where the ground has been disturbed – were found at depths of one to two meters, Chief David Monias said Wednesday.

According to him, the discovery means that research should now be done into the number of anomalies that are unmarked cemeteries.

“It’s quite shocking to hear that many [anomalies]because you wonder how many children are missing,” Monias said.

St. Joseph’s Residential School, operated by the Roman Catholic Church, was active in the community from 1912 to 1969 and housed children from all over northern Manitoba.

Investigators previously documented 85 deaths of children at the school, Monias said when the radar search began two years ago.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend boarding schools across Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented abuses in the schools and estimated that 6,000 Indigenous children died in the institutions.

A chief gives a speech over a piece of equipment in front of two tepees, while four other people stand around.
Pimicikamak Chief David Monias speaks before the community begins searching the former St Joseph’s boarding school using ground penetrating radar in July 2022. (Submitted by David Monias)

Documents from the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation show that the outbreaks at St. Joseph’s were linked to overcrowding, including the spread of tuberculosis in 1943.

Monias said the community wants help to continue the investigation. He is calling on the federal government to fund a follow-up investigation by the International Commission on Missing Persons, based in The Hague.

“We need an independent, impartial body to assist in these searches,” Monias said.

Searches for former boarding schools have been underway in many parts of Canada since 2021, when ground-penetrating radar discovered 215 anomalies on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia.

In Manitoba, 14 anomalies were found at the site of the former Pine Creek Residential School. After excavation, there was no evidence of human remains.

The Sagkeeng First Nation discovered 190 anomalies in the soil in 2022.

Monias said that finding out the truth behind the anomalies will bring closure to the case.

“You can’t do that when you have so many questions in your head and you wonder what the truth is.”

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can reach emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or via online chat.

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