RCMP investigate after search of western Manitoba residential school site discovers possible unmarked graves

RCMP are investigating the site of a former residential school in western Manitoba after ground-penetrating radar searches there this summer revealed anomalies that could be unmarked graves.

Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as Pine Creek First Nation, learned of ground anomalies this summer

AltoMaxx staff use a drone on May 11, 2022, as part of the ground-penetrating radar search in Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as Pine Creek First Nation, in western Manitoba. (Angela McKay/Pine Creek First Nation)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

RCMP are investigating the site of a former residential school in western Manitoba after ground-penetrating radar searches this summer revealed anomalies that could be unmarked graves.

The anomalies discovered in Minegoziibe Anishinabe — also known as Pine Creek First Nation — prompted Chief Derek Nepinak to ask the police to investigate. 

Mounties announced Friday they would investigate the anomalies found at the site after a communal feast and community forum was held on the First Nation on Thursday to detail the investigation.

Six of the anomalies were reported in June and 14 more in August. The discoveries were made by British Columbia-based company AltoMaxx, which searched the site of the former Pine Creek Residential School. That included using ground-penetrating radar to search under a Catholic church.

That number has now grown to 71 anomalies, Nepinak said Friday. To date, five scans have been completed around a roughly 40-hectare (100-acre) area around the residential school site, as well as around and under the church, he said.

In August, Nepinak said he had been told the anomalies discovered at that point were between one metre to 1.25 metres long (three to four feet), and are consistent with other ground searches of unmarked burials in Canada and elsewhere.

The investigation going forward will be a collaboration between the RCMP and Minegoziibe Anishinabe, Nepinak said. The First Nation will assign delegates to the process and language speakers for translation services. 

"We're going to be creating, hopefully, an environment where people feel comfortable sharing," Nepinak said. "There are people that have a lot of things to say about their own experience ... what they've heard and what they've seen in the school in the past."

During Thursday's community forum, officers outlined how the investigation will unfold and sought input to ensure the probe is done in a culturally sensitive way, RCMP said in their Friday news release.

"Yesterday was the culmination of the planning and execution of what we call 'Phase 1,'" Nepinak told CBC on Friday, adding it was part of "community engagement to let our members know that this investigation is going to proceed in a respectful, trauma-informed manner."

Nepinak said Minegoziibe Anishinabe will take as much time as needed to ensure the search is done respectfully.

"There's no established guidelines, protocols or parameters on what we're calling a collaborative investigation with the RCMP," he said. "This is the first of it's kind."

Investigation must be culturally sensitive: RCMP

The Mounties must ensure the investigation is thorough, methodical and culturally sensitive, and collect evidence to provide the answers the community is looking for, said Manitoba RCMP Supt. Rob Lasson, officer in charge of major crime services.

The investigation comes after an Aug. 15 meeting at the RCMP's Winnipeg headquarters between senior RCMP officers and representatives from the First Nation, including Nepinak, council members and elders, the release said.

That meeting centred on the ground anomalies and the potential role of the RCMP in investigating them. 

During the meeting, officers learned the community was specifically concerned about possible criminality related to ground anomalies detected beneath the church.

Representatives also shared that elders and community members have additional knowledge and information related to the anomalies, the release said. 

That meeting concluded with a formal request from community leadership for the RCMP to investigate the ground anomalies.

As part of the investigation's initial phase, officers will collect information about every aspect of the anomalies, identify witnesses and begin interviews — all with a trauma-informed approach.

Police will also consider site examination based on the analysis of the evidence collected during that first phase, the release said. 

Many First Nations across Canada began searches of the sites of former residential schools children were forced to attend following the discovery of more than 200 potential unmarked graves at the former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C, in 2021.

That includes ground searches that have been started or planned at most of the 14 residential school sites in Manitoba.

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 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.

With files from Chelsea Kemp