First Nations leaders plan to continue an intensive ground search around the old Pelican Lake Indian Residential School near Sioux Lookout, Ont., where 15 children were reported missing over several decades, in spite of news that what they've found so far are animal remains.
A two-week hunt through the dense bush has uncovered what many believed were the remains of children who disappeared while attending residential school.
'I thought one or two might have been human. But that doesn’t mean we've given up.' —Lac Seul Chief Clifford Bull
The Ontario coroner's office viewed the contents of a cardboard box of bone fragments collected by a search party. On Wednesday, forensic anthropologist Kathy Gruspier ruled the remains were "non-human."
"I don’t often give a species, but it was obvious that there were a number of species represented, some bear, moose or cow. It looked like there were some pig's feet. It looks like some of the remains were butchered," she said.
The chief of the First Nation closest to the old residential school said he felt "defeated" by what Gruspier had to say.
"I felt kind of sunken; it was very emotional for me," Lac Seul Chief Clifford Bull said.
"I thought one or two might have been human. But that doesn’t mean we've given up," he added. "We're going to go ahead and widen the search."
Fifteen children were officially reported as missing from Pelican Lake Indian Residential School during its years of operation between 1926 and 1973. But Bull, and others, believe there were many more who disappeared.
The Oombash brothers, from Cat Lake First Nation, were among them.
Like many of the students at Pelican Lake, Charles and Thomas Oombash were flown there from their remote community further north. They ran away from the school in 1956.
Their sister, Delia Kenequanash, said the family never stopped looking for them.
"We searched everywhere, hoping they were still alive, like hoping that they were moved somewhere else and grew up somewhere else," she said.
This spring, new information came to light about where the boys' bodies might be found.
The family launched a new ground search along the railroad tracks near the old school.
Russell Wesley is a nephew to the missing brothers.
"It's pretty hard to describe, there are so many emotions," he said of the weeks spent searching. "I attended residential school, too, so coming back here and physically being here again was very difficult."
But the experience has also been worth it, Wesley and Kenequanash said.
'We didn't want no coroner'
The search team used spiritual guides and traditional tracking methods to narrow the hunt to a specific location. They found several bones that they believed were of the lost brothers in an area that may have been an old sulphur mine.
"We had elders with us that recognized [the bones] were human, that it wasn't animal, that's how we knew," Kenequanash said. "We didn't want no coroner. I personally have a strong belief in my tradition and I believed that is what we found, because that's what we were told [by the elders]."
The family took the bones home to Cat Lake First Nation and buried them alongside their father.
Wesley said it has provided closure to the older members of the family, and a desire, among the younger ones, to keep searching. His aunt Delia agrees.
"We felt we had our answers, we found what we were looking for … but we wanted to continue the search for other people," Kenequanash said. "I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who still want answers about where their missing people, their missing siblings are."
As part of the hunt for the Oombash brothers, searchers uncovered other areas near the school where they believe children may be buried. One of those other areas yielded the fragments of bone examined by the coroner.
But everyone agrees the search must continue.
'Outsiders coming in'
Fred Thomas did some of the digging in June. He's looking for his mother's sisters, who never returned from residential school.
Thomas said the corner's visit is meaningful, even if the news isn't what people wanted to hear.
"I still feel positive about it and I still feel more energized and I feel we have a lot of support now that the outsiders are coming in," Thomas said.
The regional coroner said he would be willing to examine anything else that is discovered. Dr. Michael Wilson said he'd determine his level of involvement on a case-by-case basis as the search continues.
There's another reason First Nations leaders are looking to put the past to rest.
A new First Nations-run high school was built on the site of the old residential school. School officials say the students feel haunted by the past.
"There's a lot of paranormal activity that goes on there, they sense it, they hear it, they see things," said Frank Beardy, a former director of the education authority that runs the school.
"Some of the elders didn't want the school built there because of that. There are things that have to be dealt with," he added.
"We’ve had a number of cleansing ceremonies … but it still happens."
School officials have invited the Oombash family to meet with students as they return this fall and explain their experience in the hopes that it will help students understand their past.