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Dogs flown in to search for unmarked graves in Cree territory

August 20, 2023

‘Going to be a long process,’ says survivor of residential school, helping with search

Two dogs sit wearing leashes in front of a plane on a tarmac.
Recce and Taz helped search the community of Chisasibi in July. They were looking for unmarked graves of children who were forced to attend residential schools. (Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

CBC News: After George E. Pachano left residential school, he swore he would never return.

But decades later, the 62-year-old, who was forced to spend four years of his childhood at St. Philip’s Indian Residential School (Anglican) of Fort George Island, is now helping co-ordinate the search for unmarked graves in the Cree Nation of Chisasibi.

In July, Pachano was on site as two dogs — trained to sniff out historic human remains — and their handlers from the Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association searched the grounds.

It’s the most recent search in the Cree Nation, part of the effort to locate unmarked graves of children who died at the institutions. “It’s very emotional, I never thought we’d have to come to this,” said Pachano. “When I left, [I thought] that was it.” 

A couple stands in the forest
George E. Pachano, left, and his wife, Marie Louise Chakapash Pachano, right, with 5-year old Avaya, in front of a cross that marks the site of the last Anglican residential school on Fort George Island, located near present day Chisasibi. This July he accompanied the dog team that searched the island. (Susan Bell/CBC)

When he was six years old, Pachano was forced to leave his family who lived in the bush for part of the year. A total of 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were made to attend church-run, government-funded residential schools between the 1870s and 1997.

Many suffered physical and sexual abuse.

“I can’t say it was the best years of my life,” said Pachano. “You had to take care of yourself. There was no love.”

Although the community is not sharing the results of the ground search yet, Pachano says when the dogs arrived he helped point them in the right direction near the sites of the two former residential schools — St. Philip’s and the Fort George Roman Catholic Residential School (also known as Ste-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus).

He says both schools were razed years ago.

“It makes it a little harder for us because it’s all rubble and we’re trying to use all the resources we can to find any missing graves,” said Pachano.

A group of people in a forested area. Two dogs play with balls.
George E. Pachano’s wife, Marie Louise Chakapash Pachano, in orange, gave instructions to the handlers when they searched the community in July.  (Submitted by George E. Pachano)
Dogs cover ‘more area in less time,’ says archaeologist

Adrian Burke, an archaeologist and a professor of archaeology at Université de Montréal, says dogs are a great tool because they are non-invasive. “It gives us another way of investigating these areas without digging,” says Burke, who is a member of the national working group on unmarked graves.

“It covers more area in less time. So for projects where you might have to cover literally a couple of acres, that’s very hard to do with GPR (ground-penetrating radar). [It] would take weeks, whereas with the dogs you can do it in a couple of days. So that’s a huge advantage.”

If a dog were to signal human remains, Burke says a team would then use GPR to confirm the finding. “We’re trying to go in extremely sensitive,” says Kim Cooper, the team manager for Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association and one of the handlers who joined the team in Chisasibi.

A black dog sits next to a cross marking a memorial in a forest.
A memorial near a now-demolished residential school. Recce took a break from her work to pose for a picture. (Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association)

“It’s only right that animals should be part of the work to find missing people. Because, you know, they’re part of nature. They’re part of the world that the Indigenous community really lives in.”

Cooper says the discovery of 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops, announced by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in May 2021, made their organization wonder if their dogs could be an asset in the search. “The tools that are available for finding unmarked graves, none of them are particularly great,” said Cooper.

“Archaeologists are always looking for additional methods of detection. And it’s not to say that one tool is [alerting us] to dig here … It’s rather when you get three and four and five different tools saying, ‘Hey, there might be something in this area’ that it starts to add more weight to the argument.”

This summer they identified possible evidence of human remains on the grounds of Montreal’s old Royal Victoria Hospital.

The dogs train using real sources, says Cooper. In old graveyards and cemeteries, she says dogs can detect tissue and bone in a number of scenarios.

“It’s not a precise thing … What dogs do is they indicate where odour is strongest and that is not necessarily where the grave is,” said Cooper.

“In the beginning [during training] they were not entirely sure what was going on. They knew they were supposed to be searching. But as they’re running around searching they’re looking at us out of the corner of the eye going ‘I’m not sure if this is something I should be telling you about or not.'”

Using dogs for this purpose has only developed over the past few years, says Cat Warren.

A dog stands on a rock ina forest near a body of water.
Taz clears areas on the shore of James Bay as part of the search. (Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association)

A retired professor from North Carolina State University and author of the book What the Dog Knows: Scent science and the amazing ways dogs perceive the world, Warren says using dogs for this purpose grew out of their deployment in crimes or cold cases. “There was a realization that the dogs were detecting things that were not part of the search but were clearly much older remains,” said Warren, who trained her own German Shepherd to detect human remains.

Unlike humans, she says, dogs have a dedicated path for scent in their brain, making their noses much more sensitive and able to triangulate an area for a search. “That combination of how much bigger a portion of their brain is dedicated to scent than ours and the fact that they can also kind of smell in stereo, so in trying to find scent, their nostrils kind of work individually,” said Warren.

A series of graves with ribbons dangling that say Every child matters.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has records of 16 children buried on Fort George. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Any method that can help further the search, is a step toward answers for Pachano. He says this is all about closure and justice. In addition to the search, he says the community wants to get a list of all those who were forced to attend the schools and the children who never returned.

“There are families whose siblings never made it back and they would like to know what happened,” said Pachano. “I know that it’s going to be a long process,” he said. “I think it’s still a subject that is very hard to talk about. So we’re trying to encourage people to come out and tell their stories, come and see us.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools. 

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.


Rachel Watts, CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec. You can reach her at