Search for unmarked graves begins at site of Dauphin residential school

A search for potential unmarked graves is underway at the McKay Residential School in Dauphin, Man. 

Ground-penetrating radar being used to scan site in western Manitoba city where school operated until 1969

A traditional ceremony took place Monday ahead of a search of the grounds of the former McKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, Man. (Submitted by Marlene Davis )

A search for potential unmarked graves is underway at the McKay Residential School in Dauphin, Man. 

The search began Tuesday morning, after a traditional ceremony was held the day before that included prayers and offerings to honour the children who attended the school, which operated from 1914 to late 1980s in the western Manitoba city.

Monday's ceremony was organized by First Nations in Treaty 2 Territory, a collective of First Nations in southwestern and central Manitoba, and Dauphin Church of Christ, which currently owns the land the building is on. 

The school closed in 1969, but the federal government continued to operate the residences, where students lived while attending nearby schools in the Dauphin area, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Ground-penetrating radar is being used to probe the area that surrounds the building for any graves.

Ground-penetrating radar technology is being used to conduct the search. (Submitted by Marlene Davis)

The investigation was prompted by other searches for unmarked graves at former residential schools across Canada, including some in Manitoba. 

Many searches began after an estimated 200 possible unmarked burial sites were detected by a radar survey this past spring near the site of the residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Monday's ceremony at the McKay school site was conducted by Allen Sutherland, an earth lodge keeper with First Nations in Treaty 2 Territory who lived in the residence in the 1980s while he was in high school. 

While he didn't attend the school itself, his siblings did. 

"For me, it was more like a choice than anything else, where my siblings, it was more like they got scooped up into the system," he said. 

Searches like the one underway now at the Dauphin site are important for bringing healing and closure to residential school survivors, Sutherland said. He thinks searches should be done at all former residential school sites. 

"This has to be done throughout Canada so we get the actual numbers, because those numbers were deliberately destroyed, withheld, hidden," he said. 

"We need to let people know these kinds of atrocities took place in Canada."

The Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has so far documented 4,118 children who died at Canada's residential schools, but the actual number is believed to be far higher.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced to attend the schools. 

The search in Dauphin is being conducted by the KGS Group from Winnipeg and is expected to take about two days. After that, the results will be processed and analyzed, which may take some time, says a news release from First Nations in Treaty 2 Territory.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides support for former students and those affected. People can access crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Holly Caruk