On National Indigenous Peoples Day, the Cree Nation of Chisasibi announced it will pursue a search of grounds at residential school sites on Fort George Island. Following consultations with survivors and communities, Chisasibi will use ground-penetrating radar (GPR) at former Anglican and Catholic schools.
“We will conduct this ground search, armed with the knowledge the answers will be difficult for many in and outside Eeyou Istchee,” said Chief Daisy House. “Our missing children never made it home. Where they lie is sacred ground – it’s up to us to bless it in their memories.”
Like other First Nations, the Crees were deeply affected by the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops in May 2021. Within a month, Chisasibi announced its own plans to investigate sites on Fort George Island, where two long-running residential schools were located on five sites between 1933 and 1981.
After the community’s relocation in 1979-80, the schools and other buildings were demolished, and the areas became overgrown. Experts suggest much of the first year of investigation would focus on locating potential search sites – including two cemeteries and three residences – which are so covered in debris, trees and cabins, that some areas would have to be clear cut to deploy GPR.
Consultations were held in various communities and online to discuss search methods and hear from as many voices as possible, including other First Nations people who had been sent to these schools. As the community didn’t want remains to be disturbed, there will be no excavation.
Contributors emphasized the duty to honour the children who never came home. Many wanted to know what happened to their loved ones to seek closure. Others hope to discover how many children remain on the island or were placed with new families.
“I believe it is the right step forward in addressing long-heard concerns from former students; shining a light on something that has been kept in the dark for way too long, taking another step in the healing journey of our survivors, and seeking truth for what is a difficult part of the Cree Nation’s history,” stated Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty.
The Grand Chief talked about meeting the Pope during one consultation and her hopes for greater access to the Catholic Church’s archives. Chief House said that step could “paint a clearer picture of our shared history.”
Participants recommended traditional ceremonies and protocols as guided by Elders. To close the process, they suggested offering tobacco with a drum song, marking graves without disturbing them, and holding feasts for grieving families.
Some suggested erecting a monument with interpretive panels at sites of both schools, rejuvenating the grounds with places to sit and remember those who never made it home. Survivors asked for continued transparency about the search process while conducting a confidential survey to collect stories about their experiences.
Both the St. Philip’s Anglican and Sainte-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jesus residential schools became overcrowded and occasionally faced food and fresh-water issues because of their remote location. While the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has recorded 16 former students buried on Fort George Island, community records show the numbers were far higher.
“With a GPR being done we can put those rumours to rest,” said George Pachano, who began organizing annual healing gatherings for survivors after attending a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 2013. “It’s like a burden is lifted.”
GPR is a non-intrusive method of recording what’s buried below the surface, sending electromagnetic waves into the ground at various frequencies. As different materials are reflected to the device, the system maps an image of the terrain. Conducting this survey during summer months minimizes external variables.
The process begins by flagging areas of interest identified by survivor accounts, school archives and aerial photos. The team then assesses the landscape for obstacles and soil disturbances, then visualizes the earth’s surface with LIDAR technology before applying GPR.
“We know of certain graves and cemeteries, but there will be many unique challenges to this search,” explained Chief House. “The island has reclaimed some of these sites and exploring them has been made more difficult as a result.”
Work will begin this summer and is expected to take two to three years with funding from federal and provincial governments.
“We will welcome these loved ones home by honouring them with the knowledge we wanted to learn their fate,” said Chief House. “We owe it to them and their families and those who loved them to honour them with the dignity that they deserved. We must do what we can to protect our future generations from this pain – we will heal together.”