Ground searches underway or planned at most of Manitoba's former residential school sites

A year after the discovery of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school, ground searches are underway at many of Manitoba's 14 residential school sites.

A year after discovery in Kamloops, searches have started, or soon will, at 9 of 14 Manitoba sites

Community members of Sandy Bay First Nation watch as a team from the University of Manitoba searches the grounds near the former Sandy Bay residential school. (Submitted by Linda Larcombe)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A year after the discovery of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school, First Nations across the country continue to search the grounds of residential schools where children from their communities went. 

That includes ground searches underway at many of the 14 residential school sites in Manitoba.

After last May's discovery in Kamloops, survivors from Sandy Bay First Nation, on the western shore of Lake Manitoba, held a four-day vigil at the community's elders' centre and lit a sacred fire.

"Throughout those four days, the elders shared stories of their time in the residential school that they had in our community," said Sandy Bay Coun. Randal Roulette.

"The possibility of unmarked graves became part of the discussion," he said. "The general consensus was that they did want to do a ground search." 

The community connected with Linda Larcombe, from the University of Manitoba's department of anthropology. 

"Survivors and elders had stories about missing children and the fact that there could potentially be graves in what they refer to as the garden area," said Larcombe, whose team focused their search on the area elders identified as "the garden."

"When the residential school was occupied, this area had been used as an orchard and a garden, and there was this grotto area which was used for, I guess, prayer and reflection." 

Roulette says that at the vigil held last May, the elders shared stories of that same garden. 

A team from the University of Manitoba searches the grounds of the former Sandy Bay Residential School in 2021. They found 13 possible sites of unmarked graves. (Submitted by Linda Larcombe)

"They weren't allowed to actually enter [the garden].… If they did, being kids trying to go into this garden, they would be punished," he said.

"They started putting two and two together and thinking there might have been another reason why they weren't allowed to that area."

Larcombe said using drone imagery, ground penetrating radar and information from the community, 13 potential unmarked graves were located.

Of the 13 sites, four have a moderate probability of being an unmarked grave, and the remaining nine have a low probability, she said.

The community was presented the findings from the ground search earlier this month, and has yet to decide on next steps.

Roulette said the people hardest hit were the elders with memories of the school. 

"When [the data] was presented to them, a lot of them at the moment, I don't think they really digested the reality of what could be true," he said.

"There does seem to be a want or desire to get more definitive answers." 

Roulette says he knows of at least 12 communities where children who attended the Sandy Bay Residential School came from.

The next step for his community is to create a group to work with all the communities impacted by the harmful legacy of the school. 

Ongoing searches in Manitoba 

Searches are also ongoing in Manitoba at Cross Lake Residential School in Cross Lake, Fort Alexander Residential School in Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Creek Residential School in Camperville and at the Brandon Residential School.

A drone was used earlier this month as part of the ground penetrating radar search on Pine Creek First Nation. (Angela McKay/Pine Creek First Nation)

A search was also started at McKay Residential School in Dauphin.

The McKay Residential School (sometimes spelled as MacKay Residential School) had two locations: the one in Dauphin, which opened in 1957 and closed in 1969, and one near The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation on Fisher Island, that ran from 1914 to 1933.

Last fall, Opaskwayak Cree Nation also started a ground search at the McKay site on Fisher Island. SNC Lavalin did the search pro bono for the community.

Each day of the search, which is set to resume in June and run throughout the summer, starts in ceremony, said OCN Coun. Edwin Jebb.

"We smudge the equipment, then we have a pipe ceremony to do before the search and after the search," he said.

The community says that so far, no unmarked graves have been discovered, which Jebb said is "a bit of a relief," but only a fraction of the former school grounds has been searched so far.

An undated photo shows the McKay Residential School, which was northwest of The Pas, Man., bordering on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. (Manitoba Historical Society)

Opaskwayak is also planning to start a ground search of the Guy Hill Residential School site in The Pas. 

Jebb said there are plans to meet with survivors at the end of July "and talk about what kind of a search we would have … if there's any stories that we can flesh out, if anybody knows anything.

"It's to bring peace of mind to people and do the ceremony."

Norway House Cree Nation is also planning to start ground searches this summer on two sites: the Norway House Residential School in Rossville and the Notre Dame Hostel in Norway House. 

No current searches at some sites

The building that housed the Portage la Prairie Residential School sits on what is now Long Plain First Nation reserve land.

In the past, the community would regularly do ground searches ahead of building on the land.

A drawing of the former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School. It closed in 1970 but the building still stands. (CBC)

While there are areas near the school the community plans to investigate, they are waiting to see how other ground searches turn out, said Adam Myran, lands director for Long Plain First Nation.

"We're very interested in what's happening in Six Nations" in Ontario, he said, where police are now involved in an investigation into deaths at the Mohawk Institute residential school.

"They're treating their [search] as a crime scene."

Children from over 20 communities were sent to the Portage la Prairie residential school before it was closed in 1975, so Myran wants to make sure those communities have a say in how any future search of the grounds is conducted. 

"Even though we have it on our land, so to speak, the school belongs to every nation that sent children there, so things will be decided by a committee," he said.

There are also currently no ground searches at the Churchill Residential School, which was demolished in 1981, or the Elkhorn Residential school, which was demolished in 1951.

In 1990, former students and staff from the Elkhorn Residential School held a reunion, and erected white crosses in the nearby cemetery, where several children forced to attend the school were buried. 

After the Kamloops discovery, the Assiniboia Residential School Legacy Group, made up of survivors who attended that Winnipeg school, held a ceremony to bless the grounds around the building. That site is now home to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

It was there the group decided there wasn't a need for a ground search around the school. 

"There was no words ever that I recall, or other students [recall], or even … stories about anything gone amiss, or students being buried or taken away," said Mabel Horton, who attended the school for six years, until she was 12 years old.

A 2017 photo of the former residential school in Birtle, Man., from the Great Plains Publications book Abandoned Manitoba: From Residential Schools to Bank Vaults to Grain Elevators, by historian Gordon Goldsborough. (Great Plains Publications)

It is unknown if a search of the Birtle residential school in that southwestern Manitoba community will be conducted.

Last year, the owner of the property said he was willing to sell it.

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.


Stephanie Cram is a reporter based in Winnipeg. She has worked for the CBC Indigenous Unit, and the CBC radio show Unreserved. She is the host of the podcast Muddied Water: 1870, Homeland of the Métis.