Manitoba

Pimicikamak Cree Nation begins ground-penetrating radar search of former residential school site

A northern Manitoba First Nation has begun what its leader says will likely be a long process to search for unmarked graves near what was once the main Roman Catholic-run residential school in the area.

Search of St. Joseph’s residential school site in northern Manitoba was first announced in April

A chief speaks near a piece of equipment in front of two teepees as four other people stand nearby.
Pimicikamak Chief David Monias speaks before the community began its ground-penetrating radar search of the former St. Joseph's residential school on Monday. (Submitted by David Monias)

A northern Manitoba First Nation has begun what its leader says will likely be a long process to search for unmarked graves near what was once the main Roman Catholic-run residential school in the area.

Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias said the ground-penetrating radar search of the St. Joseph's residential school site began after a ceremony on Monday.

The search itself is expected to take at least two weeks, while the analysis of the search's findings could take months — or even up to a year, he said on Tuesday.

About six community members who are currently being trained in how to use the equipment will also assist with searching the area where the institution once stood, Monias said.

St. Joseph's, also called Cross Lake Indian Residential School, started taking in boarders in 1912 and operated as a residential school from 1915 until it closed in 1969. It was the main residential school for northern Manitoba, Monias said when the search was first announced in April.

There were federally funded schools at two locations near the Pimicikamak community — one at Norway House and one at Cross Lake. Both were destroyed by fires and rebuilt.

Monias said there are mixed emotions in the community as the search is finally underway.

"I think this … may find some real truth, and that's going to hurt a lot of people and hurt our people. But at the same time, you're excited to finally get the truth out," he said.

"And of course, it's starting to be clear that [as] we deal with the emotions, the hurt, the trauma and those sorts of things, that we have to make sure that we take care of those people. Because we're going to be opening up a lot of wounds."

Next steps

The First Nation secured money from the federal government to contract the Saskatoon-based Axiom Group — a company that provides geological, engineering and environmental services — to do the ground-penetrating radar search, Monias said.

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said Pimicikamak received close to $1.1 million through federal funding previously announced to support Indigenous community efforts to find missing children at former residential school sites. 

A person looks at a ground-penetrating radar machine.
Monias says the search is expected to take at least two weeks, while the analysis of its findings will likely take much longer. (Submitted by David Monias)

The government's website lists the timeline for the project at Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake, as 2021 to 2024.

Staff have also been searching through archival documents to help identify children who died at the institution, while a team from Pimicikamak travelled to learn from other communities that have done similar work already, Monias said.

That included two trips to Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, a community that announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School last summer.

"We had our team go there twice to look at what they're doing and to learn from them, and to see what worked and what did not work so we can better plan our own search," Monias said.

Now, Monias said the community is looking ahead to how it will approach challenges it faces during the search — including flooding in low-lying areas — and what its next steps might be.

Those steps will include creating a monument to honour children forced to attend residential schools, he said. Planning for that is underway.

Monias also hopes the community can one day use the findings from its searches to create a centre to teach people about the history of the institutions.

"I think that we need to set something up [so] that people can go and learn, especially our youth, our children," he said.

"So they understand what's happened to our people and what's happening now and the impacts — and how to be able to move forward and live a good life."

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk

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