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Missing Children and Burial Information (71-76)

‘I grieve for the ones that didn’t come home’: St. Anne’s survivor helping to search for unmarked graves

September 29, 2023

There are plans to search the old St. Anne’s property with ground-penetrating radar this winter

Black and white photo of a large imposing institutional building with swingsets in the foreground.
Rick Wabano attend St. Anne’s Indian Residential School from 1969-71 and is now part of efforts to document the stories of survivors and search for unmarked graves on the site in Fort Albany on Ontario’s James Bay Coast. (Algoma University/Edmund Metatawabin Collection)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

CBC Indigenous: Rick Wabano was sitting in his Grade 2 classroom in Moosonee when a priest came in, took him home to pack a bag and then brought him down to the float plane dock.

He and two of his younger siblings were flying further up Ontario’s James Bay Coast to the St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany. 

“My mom was there with a priest. She didn’t say nothing,” remembered the 61-year-old. “My younger sibling was standing on the dock crying. She wanted to come with us.”

Wabano recalls being excited to get to fly in a plane for the first time, but confused when he later ran into his older brother, who was already at St. Anne’s. “I couldn’t even look at my brother if I passed him in the halls, because he would be punished if we made eye contact,” he said. 

“So I was wondering why he was ignoring me and I didn’t know why until after.”

Wabano, who has lived most of his life in Moosonee but is a citizen of Attawapiskat First Nation, says years later his brother, who has since died, told stories about abuse he faced, including the notorious “electric chair” used at St. Anne’s.

Black and white photo of boys sitting at wooden desks in school
Boys in a classroom c. 1945 at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario. (Edmund Metatawabin collection/Algoma University)

“He carried a lot of his pain. The compensation did little to help with his healing,” he said.  “When I hear a lot of these stories, a lot of them were happening under my nose.”

Wabano has been hearing more of those stories in recent months, as part of the Nee Kee Wa Nan (which means coming home in Cree) group, funded by the provincial and federal governments to further explore the history of individual residential schools, including searching for unmarked graves.

He says a lot of elders are speaking for the first time about their experiences at St. Anne’s and it makes him count his “blessings” even more.

“And this is probably why I’m doing this work today. I’m thriving, I’m telling my story, I’m raising my family and I think I carry that torch for the ones that didn’t come home,” said Wabano. “I wouldn’t say survivor’s guilt or anything, but I grieve for the ones that didn’t come home. We all do.”

A woman in a green jacket and a man in a black hoodie adjust a screen on a piece of radar machinery while standing in a patch of grass near a wooded area.
There are plans to use ground-penetrating radar to search the former school grounds in Fort Albany this winter. A similar search was done at Shingwauk school in Sault Ste. Marie a year ago, but the results have yet to be made public. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

Wabano says the group is hoping to search the former school yard in Fort Albany this winter using ground-penetrating radar, expected to work better in the wet soils of the James Bay lowlands when the ground is frozen.  “Even if we don’t [find any graves], the fact that we went through the process I think provides closure as well. As Indigenous people up here, we all the truth up here, and I think that truth between us as Mushkegowuk people is healing enough,” he said. 

Radar was used to search the grounds of the former Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie about a year ago, but the results have yet to be made public. 

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 survivors 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


Erik White , journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to