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National Gathering on Unmarked Burials supports Fort George investigation 

BY Patrick Quinn Sep 26, 2023

At the fifth National Gathering on Unmarked Burials, held in Montreal September 6-8, a Cree delegation shared their experiences searching former residential school sites on Fort George Island while learning from other communities and experts. 

This was the first such gathering in Quebec, where special interlocutor Kimberly Murray said searches are not as far advanced as in some other provinces. Murray was given a two-year mandate by the federal government in June 2022 to provide recommendations for a legal framework in protecting burial sites and the identification and repatriation of missing children.

“The important role that these gatherings take is showing those best practices and bringing the experts together,” said Murray, who is Mohawk from Kanesatake. “All the experts talk about overlaying different technologies because some don’t work in certain areas.”

Murray plans to attend the upcoming Fort George residential school gathering, scheduled November 6-10, where she can hear from survivors and support search efforts at the island’s two former school sites. This annual healing gathering was moved from August after forest fires closed access roads. 

“We’re trying to get them the funding they need,” Murray told the Nation. “I don’t think they’ve had access to the records yet. I know there’s a lot of records of Fort George in the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation. Also, work with the church to get what they have – we keep finding more boxes of records.”

Work at Fort George is particularly complicated. The sites have become overgrown with brush and debris after the former school buildings were demolished when the community was relocated in 1979-80. While some of the area was cleared this summer, more needs to be done to improve the effectiveness of ground penetrating radar (GPR).

Residential school survivors George E. Pachano and his wife Marie Louise Chakapash Pachano have helped coordinate Chisasibi’s search for unmarked graves since the investigation was announced last summer. Gertie Neacappo was hired this June as residential school response coordinator and they’re hoping to hire a research specialist. 

“Over the winter we started talking to survivors, taking their statements,” explained Pachano. “I wrote to different organizations, like the Anglican Church. The [Catholic] missionaries have their archives stored in Richelieu. They said they don’t have the resources to do that kind of research so we’re looking at getting somebody to go through the archives.”

When First Nations like Moose Factory that are beginning their searches ask for advice, Pachano suggests starting with survivor testimonies, which can ideally be cross-referenced with aerial maps and other records. With Fort George survivors often coming from Ontario or other regions, consultations that led Chisasibi to proceed with GPR have continued to yield stories.  

“As much as possible we tried to reach out to the communities from Ontario or Lac Saint-Jean,” Pachano said. “We don’t have the means to go to every community. They’ll say there was something fishy and maybe you should look into it. They were seven years old back then, now these people are 70.”

Neacappo has been working with archaeologists this summer to map search areas at the former Anglican and Catholic schools. In July, two dogs and their handlers from the Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association searched the sites, trained to detect evidence of human remains.

“We were planning on having the dog team together with the GPR team but unfortunately they couldn’t come because of the road closures with the fires,” said Neacappo. “They couldn’t put the equipment on a plane. We only had the dog team for two days. When they get tired, they stop.”

Earlier in the summer, the same dog teams had found evidence at the site of Montreal’s old Royal Victoria Hospital, in a search initiated by the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers). Neacappo hopes the GPR team will arrive in late September or early October and that the dogs can return another time to continue searching. 

Another emerging technology involves a probe that detects the acidity of bodies underground. As Pachano was told there’s only one in Canada, they’re hoping to secure some time with it before winter. Even when ground disturbances are observed, they must be meticulously analyzed and cross-referenced before any conclusions can be drawn.  

The national gathering enabled the Cree delegation to learn more about new search methods, data sovereignty and how other communities have approached their investigations. In a leadership panel called “Where to Begin,” Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and other Chiefs asserted that the ultimate objective of finding bodies must be justice and that Canada’s indifference and inaction would be taken to the United Nations.  

Murray explained that initial government funding is insufficient for searches that may take at least a decade, in addition to mental wellness support and land repatriation issues. She believes searches should expand to any institution that Indigenous children were sent to, including hospitals and orphanages. 

While Pachano and Neacappo were both impressed by the inspiring speeches and expert panels, the gathering was also a valuable opportunity to spark discussions that may provide leads towards locating missing family members. 

“Two of my family members didn’t come home from residential school,” shared Neacappo. “I heard a recording from an Elder about how they passed away – they don’t know if they’re buried there. That’s what motivates me to find out.”

Seeking information on behalf of a Cree woman whose sister had a hospital appointment and was never heard from again, Pachano tried to jog the memory of a couple who had gone to the same residential school. He said the lady recognized the name and would try to check with other former classmates. 

Whether it’s a promising lead “or another dead end,” the possibility of finding answers and providing families with a sense of closure motivates him to keep calling other survivors to discuss memories some would rather forget. Meeting survivors at this gathering helped him verify others’ stories, which will better focus ongoing search efforts at Fort George.  

“A lot don’t want to rehash everything after 50, 60 years,” said Pachano. “Then there are other people who say my sister never came back, I’d like to eventually find out where they’re buried. We become the voice for people who don’t want to talk about it. That’s why I’m doing it.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.