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‘A tragic first for Ontario’: 171 plausible burials found at Kenora residential school site

January 17, 2023

A survivors group is investigating the site of the St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, which operated under different names from 1897 to 1972.

Article was updated 10 hrs ago

Toronto Star: A survivors group that has been investigating the site of the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., says ground-penetrating radar has revealed at least 171 anomalies or plausible burials. 

The Kaatagoging Survivors Group has been searching the site for unmarked graves or human remains since May. On Tuesday, it announced its findings. The group noted the investigation was launched under cultural protocols and that studies conducted by the technical, archeological and ground-penetrating radar teams were informed by survivor testimony. 

Within the former school’s cemetery grounds, there are five grave markers. The nation said the next steps are to obtain greater certainty on the number of plausible graves on the cemetery grounds.

Wauzhush Onigum Nation Chief Chris Skead, himself the son of a residential school survivor, speaks of the finding of 171 anomalies, or plausible remains at the site of the former St. Mary's Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.

In a statement to the Star, Wauzhush Onigum Nation Chief Chris Skead reflected on how the findings affected him personally as the son of a residential school survivor. “My community grieves today. My people are hurting. When I spoke to them today I called upon them for strength. I said to them I’ll need their strength to be able to stand up there and talk about the results. It’s hard. It’s very hard. At the same time, we know we have partners. We have allies. We have people all over the country walking with us,” he said.

The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc announcement in May 2021 that more than 200 suspected unmarked graves had been identified on the grounds of the former school in Kamloops, B.C.. has been followed by a wave of searches at numerous sites of residential institutions across this country. 

The effort in Kenora received financial assistance from the federal and Ontario governments.

Skead said every discovery of unmarked graves nationwide further highlights how important it is for Canadians to understand the truth of what occurred in the residential school system. “I want Canadians to remember that these are our children. They didn’t get to grow up, become teenagers, love someone, but their parents, have a normal life. They didn’t get to play with other kids and navigate life,” Skead said. 

“I want Canadians to look at their children and imagine what it was like. Imagine what it’s like for us. And then ask yourselves what reconciliation should mean.”

Skead was to meet with federal ministers Marc Miller, Patty Hadju as well as special interlocutor Kim Murray and Rickford, to discuss future investigations and what the government can do to help.  “We are hopeful that our discussions with Canada and Ontario … will be productive,” Skead said.

“Finding the truth and exercising caution on everything touched by the genocidal legacy comes at a price and it’s a price our treaty partners need to be prepared to pay. That is true reconciliation.”

The school was also previously known as Rat Portage Boarding School, Kenora Boarding School and St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School. It opened in 1897 and closed in 1972, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

According to a news release, more than 6,100 children attended St. Mary’s from 16 Treaty 3 communities, seven communities in Manitoba and 10 communities in Eastern Canada during its 75 years of operation. At least 36 children died at the school, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although the true number is believed to be higher based on survivor testimonies. 

The survivors group plans to conduct further investigation on various sites in the school’s vicinity that were not covered in the initial work. They said these sites were identified through survivor testimony, archeological assessment and archival investigations that show burial rituals being carried out by former school staff.

Some of the future sites are on private land, and the nation said they will provide updates as they emerge. They have asked for their privacy to be respected.

Greg Rickford, Ontario’s minister of Indigenous Affairs and also MPP for Kenora — Rainy River, said he immediately connected with Chief Skead and the Wauzhush Onigum Nation when the findings were released and offered the province’s “full support.” “The news from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation is heartbreaking. Today’s discovery, the result of an eight-month investigation, is a tragic first for Ontario,” he said.

A photo depicting a ground investigation at the former site of the St. Mary's Indian Residential School.

An estimated 150,000 children attended Canadian residential schools, which operated from 1832 to 1996. It’s believed up to 6,000 children died at the schools, although historical records are incomplete. 

Meanwhile, the woman appointed to work with Indigenous communities as they search for unmarked graves across Canada says the fight is not over for records that could answer “hard questions,” including who the missing children were, how they died and where they are buried.

Without records documenting the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, special interlocutor Kimberly Murray said, “deniers will continue to deny” and future generations could be led to forget. Survivors of the residential institutions have a “right to know,” Murray told a national gathering on unmarked burials in Vancouver on Tuesday.

That right is not only individual, but collective, so the country can “draw on the past to prevent future violations,” said Murray, who is a member of Kanesatake Mohawk Nation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government is committed to sharing all the information it can possibly find about the institutions in federal records. Yet Murray said the search is still on for records held by Canadian authorities and churches that operated many of the institutions. Those records have the potential to help people as they search for missing family members, she said. 

“This isn’t an academic exercise.”

In his online remarks, Chief Skead encouraged community members to use resources such as the Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program hotline, and to lean on each other for support. “Remember that we are still here, and that has taken our Anishinaabe strength, the strength of our ancestors. Use that strength — we will need it to continue to move forward.”

With files from The Canadian Press

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh