'We're going to find them' — searching for the lost children of St. John's residential school
There are no exact records as to how many children are buried at the former school or where the graves are
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Mike Cachagee remembers how cold and indifferent it felt as he and the other students at the St. John's Indian Residential School buried two little girls on the side of a hill.
It still bothers him, almost 80 years later.
"We're looking at this little girl in this box. No one's grieving, no crying, no nothing," said Cachagee.
It also bothers him that he can't remember where on the hillside those little girls are buried.
The cemetery is on a slope coming down from the highway leading into the small northern Ontario town of Chapleau. Tall, thick pines now stand among the few grave markers.
The graveyard was abandoned for many years after St. John's closed in 1948, but the Indigenous communities of the area always knew where it was, and in recent years, the property was cleaned up, fenced off and a monument with about two dozen names installed.
But Cachagee says no one knows for sure if those children are buried there, where exactly the graves are or if there are others.
There are also stories about graves being dug on other parts of the old school grounds and there are questions about the original location of St. John's, abandoned over a century ago and long since swallowed up by the forest.
"In some ways I'm a little apprehensive of them finding a whole bunch we never knew about," said Cachagee, who attended three different residential schools.
"It's the honouring that we want to do. Before I go to the other side."
When Adrienne Beaupre walks through the old St. John's cemetery, she wonders if her ancestors are resting underfoot.
Her three aunts died while attending the school in the 1940s and it's not known what happened to their remains.
Official records say two died of tuberculosis and one is listed as kidney failure, but Beaupre says the family has heard she might have died in a fire at the school.
"Felt like we were robbed of our aunts and our ancestors' love and their teachings, you know. A lot of things were lost," said Beaupre, who's own mother only recently started talking about her time in residential school.
She is excited that some of what was lost could soon be found, and hopes that the same ground-penetrating radar that indicated the remains of 215 children in Kamloops, B.C., could be used at the St. John's site and other areas nearby.
"Oh yes, my sister and I spoke about it and we're going to find them. We're determined," said Beaupre, who lives in Chapleau Cree First Nation.
"It's not for us, it's for them. For our ancestors."
Nellie Mitchell Ojeebah's family was "pulled apart" by residential school.
She was sent away to Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie as a very young girl and was told she didn't have any parents.
The Brunswick House First Nation woman later met her mother and father as a teenager, but never really spoke to them much about her parents' time at the old St. John's school.
"I think it's terrible they just discard people like garbage," said the 72-year-old.
These days she thinks a lot about her younger brother who attended Shingwauk as a boy and was later transferred to a residential school in Sioux Lookout, Ont., where he died in 1960.
Mitchell Ojeebah doesn't know where his grave is.
"He was only 13 when he died. They say it was an accident, but I don't know," she said.
"My goal is for this year or next year to hopefully make it out there. Just give us some closure."
When Marjorie Cachagee-Lee comes to the old cemetery, she can't help wondering if there are children buried under every tree, in the nearby river or under the highway.
"I feel good when I come here because I feel I'm visiting my people and I feel they know I'm here," said the 76-year-old, who spent much of her childhood at Shingwauk Residential School.
Cachagee-Lee worries that the federal government is just "throwing money" at the unmarked graves question with $27 million to conduct searches, and says that approach has failed to bring Indigenous communities peace in the past.
"We need a solid foundation of information of what happened to these children," she said.
"We know what happened to us. They have our story. I want to know what happened to these children."
LISTEN | Searching for the children who never made it home from Ontario residential school:
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 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.