Sagkeeng First Nation's search of former residential school site uncovers 190 radar anomalies

The search of a former Manitoba residential school site has unearthed what the chief of the First Nation describes as "anomalies" that could be unmarked burial sites, though the true nature of those anomalies remains unclear.

Chief of Manitoba First Nation says anomalies 'fit the criteria' of possible grave sites

A search gets underway in June 2021 on the grounds of a former residential school in Sagkeeng First Nation for the remains of children who went missing there. On Friday, the chief of the community provided an update for residents, noting 190 anomalies were discovered with radar technology that could possibly indicate the presence of unmarked graves. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The search of a former Manitoba residential school site has unearthed what the chief of the First Nation describes as "anomalies" that could be unmarked burial sites, though the true nature of those anomalies remains unclear.

During the search, ground-penetrating radar used in the community of Sagkeeng First Nation uncovered 190 anomalies in the soil that could be the sites of unmarked graves.

"So far, we don't know what's there," said Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson on Monday morning.

"They are disturbances in the soil that fit the criteria of possibly, potentially, unmarked burials. We don't know what's under there yet."

Henderson and other officials held a community meeting Friday to provide residents with an update of search efforts, which got underway about one year ago. The search followed findings of several potential unmarked grave sites at former residential school sites across Canada last year.

Henderson said at the meeting last week there was a feast, ceremony and memorial songs. He asked community members to be patient as they determine what the next steps should be in confirming the nature of the 190 anomalies.

"It's going to trigger, re-traumatize some of our former residential school survivors, it's going to trigger trauma within our community again." he said.

"We're going to be getting our community people and our pipe carriers together now, in the next week or two, to go to ceremony and then give us direction on what we do next."

When the search got underway last June 21, it led to an area near the community's arena and powwow grounds, along the Winnipeg River, where the soil disturbances were found.

Henderson said the search sites in the community contain no lasting signs above ground of burials, but are considered by some survivors to potentially be where some missing children who were forced to attend residential school were buried.

Henderson said 137 anomalies were discovered at the arena grounds, and another 53 were found at a site adjacent to the arena grounds near a community store. Both sites are less than a kilometre from the site of the former Alexander Residential School grounds.

Former church settlement

Mary Courchene from Sagkeeng First Nation is a survivor of Fort Alexander Residential School. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Mary Courchene attended Fort Alexander from about 1944 until finishing Grade 10 there in the 1950s. She says it's possible the 190 anomalies are not linked to the Fort Alexander school at all.

Courchene said old stories she heard suggest there was a church settlement there — prior to the school being founded — that might have been involved in missionary-type work, such as baptisms.

During the decade she spent there, she says she did not know of any children who passed away in the school.

"From time to time there were rumours that there were grave sites on that edge where they … did the search," she said.

"It wasn't children as I recall. Other people my age also say the same thing — that it wasn't children, it was people, maybe young people, but that were not part of the residential school."

Regardless of the nature of these particular anomalies, Courchene agrees it is important to get to the bottom of what happened. 

She said efforts to uncover unmarked graves play an important in role in understanding the true history of what happened at residential schools.

"It was a brainwashing, changing our way of thinking … all of us were affected by that," she said. "They came, they saw, they conquered and stole — stole the children from homes, from families."

Henderson said there were 31 other First Nations communities whose children were sent to Fort Alexander, which operated from 1905 until 1970. Members from those communities will be invited to Sagkeeng in the coming weeks for a ceremony and to discuss what should happen next.

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 Holly Caruk