WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The excavation of possible unmarked graves near a former residential school is the next step in a journey of trauma and healing, say members of a Manitoba First Nation.
The Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as the Pine Creek First Nation, is working with researchers at Brandon University to excavate 14 anomalies found in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church using ground-penetrating radar last year. The church stands next to the former Pine Creek Residential School.
Nation member Brenda Catcheway has been a part of the search for unmarked graves since it began. She says the search is part of the story of the Minegoziibe Anishinabe, located about 200 miles northwest of Winnipeg, because the residential school left traumas that have lasted for generations.
“I’m happy with the stage we’re at and happy to be here to complete it,” Catcheway said.
She was on the church grounds Monday providing an update to the community on the ongoing search. Her attention turned to sharing information about the excavation while ensuring the well-being of the community as the investigation continues.
Catcheway says the excavations start Wednesday and will take a month to complete.
If unmarked graves are found, the remains will be identified through carbon dating, DNA testing, and school student registration.
generations of survivors
Catcheway’s grandmother and mother were sent to the residential school and she attended the day school located nearby.
Her grandmother was concerned about sending Catcheway to the facility because of the horrors she faced at the residential school, Catcheway said. She fought to keep Catcheway out of school for as long as possible in order to be old enough “to protect herself”.
“She shared stories with me,” Catcheway said. “She used to think she was just telling me scary stories, but I think we’re getting to the truth that she was telling me real stories.”
Approximately 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada.
Pine Creek School was run by the Roman Catholic Church, which operated from 1890 to 1969 in different buildings, including the church, on a large parcel of land.
The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation has a record of 21 child deaths at the school and survivors have long spoken out about abuse at the facility.
The first community search found an additional 57 anomalies at the site around the church and residential school.
However, the initial excavation will focus on the basement of the church.
Will Charbonneau, a member of the Minegoziibe Anishinabe Nation, grew up attending a primary school next to the former Pine Creek Residential School for a decade.
He says that when they were kids, they would hear horror stories about their parents’ residential school.
“Every classroom in the front had a view of the church, so you would be sitting there every day looking at it and saying ‘there are ghosts in the church,'” Charbonneau said. “We saw him and heard about him every day. We grew up around him.”
Charbonneau says that seeing her mother and grandparents survive by attending Pine Creek day and residential schools gives her a sense of empowerment. This motivated him to be a part of the project, he said, to help bring children home and help people heal.
He began working to help map and excavate the church basement on Monday. Charbonneau says it’s a difficult journey because each bookmark is a reminder of the children whose stories have been lost.
Keep the community informed
Emily Holland, a forensic anthropologist at Brandon University, says investigators are consulting closely to see what the community wants and to make sure they are proceeding in a culturally appropriate manner.
“The work we are doing is quite sensitive and if there are people in these reflections [anomalies] and they’re actually graves, that’s a really hard thing for the community to consider,” Holland said.
Holland has a team that includes two search supervisors, Brandon University students, and locals like Charbonneau who help investigate the church basement.
She says that local knowledge will be key in the next month when they start excavating the anomalies.
“They know where the residential school was, they know who it was … they know all that stuff about their community,” Holland said.
During the community update, the children played and sang drum songs, something that would not have been possible when the residential school was open.
Charbonneau says these moments of cultural celebration are part of community healing.
“I’m sure if there are children here today they are happy to see that the children of our generation can do the things that they couldn’t,” Charbonneau said.
It was emotional to see the little kids play the drums, Catcheway said, because it’s something he wishes he had growing up.
The elders told him, “Those children in the basement need to hear the drum and they need to hear the children play and that is how they will hear it.
“We’re trying to get back to who we are,” he said.
A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can access crisis and emotional referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness Hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.