Since plans to investigate residential school sites on Fort George Island were announced last June, Chisasibi leadership has conducted consultations about how to proceed in a respectful manner.
In November, local survivors and their families were informed about ground penetrating radar (GPR), the technology used in last year’s discovery of 215 unidentified graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC.
“It’s a complex situation in Fort George,” said Chisasibi Deputy Chief Paula Napash, who is leading the consultations. “It’s unique. We had two residential schools but five different locations. The first Anglican residential school in 1933 burnt down so they built it somewhere else. One was relocated to a different area.”
Between 1933 and 1981 – before the community was relocated to Chisasibi – three Anglican and two Catholic school sites existed on the island. They hosted students from across James Bay and beyond, prompting locals to recommended consulting other communities before deciding whether or how to investigate.
“A lot of our community members went to different residential schools, not just at Fort George,” explained Napash. “They were saying, ’Nobody asked us if we wanted GPR to be done. It’s happening all over again – they’re deciding for us, and we’re not even informed of the decision.’ They didn’t want us to treat them how they were treated.”
Working with the Chisasibi Heritage and Cultural Centre, Napash has determined that Fort George students came from the Ontario communities of Fort Albany, Attawapiskat and Moosonee, as well as Eastmain, Great Whale, Old Factory River, Lake John, Nemaska, Paint Hills, Pointe Bleue, Rupert House and Témiscaming.
“We had people from along the coast and also people from Ontario and the Saguenay area of Quebec,” said Napash. “We’re very fortunate the cultural centre does the research for us on the different locations, dates and pictures. They’re our experts on our history and have a lot of files on the different students who attended residential school.”
Napash intends to reach out to various band councils this winter, asking for their consent to hold consultations in their communities. She understands if some don’t wish to be involved but believes it’s important that they be offered the opportunity.
“Before we give our definite answer, we need to know what people want,” Napash told the Nation. “We’ve always said we’re not going to decide for our community – it will be the survivors who decide. If it does happen, then at least they’ll have voiced their opinions and it wasn’t decided for them.”
Following consultations with Elders November 4 and with the general community November 15, a three-day residential school gathering prompted further discussion about the proposed investigation. While many were retraumatized by last summer’s revelations, there was no clear consensus on the path forward.
“When Kamloops happened, even the ones who did a lot of work on themselves were saying it was starting over from square one,” Napash shared. “Most who shared their input said they do want the GPR because they want closure. Some people said leave it alone, no need to bring up the past, we’ve moved on. We know some are not ready to share and some will never share.”
Some who did share their stories explained how uncovering long-repressed truths about residential schools had reopened old wounds. Even still, according to Napash, many expressed the thought that, “It’s finally out there – now people believe me.” With so many having taken these painful secrets to the grave, there is a sense of urgency to have these conversations before it’s too late.
“A community member I knew who went to the original residential school in 1933 recently passed at 95 years old,” said Napash. “My grandmother only started sharing stories just before she passed. She went to residential school when she was five to when she quote-unquote graduated so she had quite a lot of stories.”
Some testimonies justify further investigation. Survivors recalled being told that siblings who never came home died of illnesses but say they always mistrusted these explanations. Others spoke of suspicious sounds coming from the furnace room.
“There are stories of students seeing the nuns and priests with shovels in the basement, holding little crosses and flowers,” Napash said. “It’s not easy. It’s a sensitive subject – we always had [mental health professionals] on standby. Some people had triggers.”
Residential school survivors across Canada are increasingly leading their community’s searches for unmarked graves. Despite a strained relationship with law enforcement, Six Nations of the Grand River leveraged resources from the Ontario Provincial Police to employ light detection and ranging technology (LIDAR) in addition to GPR under the guidance of cultural monitors.
Napash has had preliminary talks with experts in GPR and other technologies, including the specialist who conducted the Kamloops search and another who works with a local Cree company. As radar devices generally require clearing brush and trees to scan for disturbed soil, a potential search could be complicated.
“It’s challenging because we relocated from Fort George and the area is covered with alder trees and debris,” Napash explained. “It’s not a flat surface. There are different locations. Now, next to the [former schools], we have our annual Maamowedow gathering, and people have started building cabins around the area.”
While Cree leadership continues to seek records from the Catholic Church, survivor testimony can be invaluable in helping identify precise areas to search. Further consultations are planned in Eeyou Istchee and in other impacted communities.
“I think we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace,” said Napash. “We’re taking our time and not rushing it. Some people might think we’re not moving fast enough but everybody needs to be aware and consulted and know we’re giving them time to think about it and discuss it.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter