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First Nations begin searching for residential school gravesites with government funding

BY Ben Powless Apr 25, 2022

After the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools shocked the country, federal and provincial governments are committing tens of millions of dollars to First Nations groups working to “identify, investigate, protect and commemorate” residential school burial sites across Canada. 

In early April, Ottawa announced over $7 million in funding for Lac Seul First Nation’s efforts to work with 33 northern Ontario First Nations to locate and commemorate missing children who attended the Pelican Lake/Pelican Falls Residential School, with the province of Ontario contributing just over $1 million.

“The funding commitment allows us, as First Nations, to search for our missing children and to find the truth through meaningful involvement of the residential school survivors and their families,” Lac Seul First Nation Chief Clifford Bull said in a statement. “This means having an ongoing stable mental health, financial and human support system in place that will be critical as we delve into such a dark past.”

“Our government will continue to support Indigenous communities as their unique needs and priorities evolve, including Lac Seul First Nation, with their research and commemoration initiatives to heal from the devastating and lasting impacts of the Pelican Lake Residential School. We acknowledge the difficult work that the leadership, the survivors, their families, and the community of Lac Seul First Nation is taking on,” said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller.

In January, Miller and BC’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Murray Rankin, announced just under $2 million in funding for the Williams Lake First Nation. The federal government says it has committed $116.8 million towards locating and commemorating missing children, as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action 72 through 76.

“The residential school system has caused indelible damage to our community and to most First Nations communities that had children who were forced to attend, or otherwise attended, these institutions,” Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said at that announcement. “There is much work to be done to uncover the truth about this horrific and protracted chapter of Canadian history, and even more work to be done to heal from the wounds that it has left on Indigenous people.”

James Cutfeet is the Director of Operations for the Bringing our Children Home initiative operating out of Lac Seul First Nation. He said the work and funding happening today is the responsibility of governments for their genocidal efforts going back over a century.

“Through forced removal of children from communities, removing them from parents, from the comfort of their community, they were thrown into chaotic environments they were unfamiliar with,” he said. “The intent was to assimilate – to remove the ‘savage’ from the ‘Indian’.

“The mass graves of missing children who never made it home, never experienced parenting, never spoke their language, never practiced their culture: We’re trying to find those children, to repatriate them to their communities at last, to go home and be with their people.” 

Cutfeet is working with 33 communities that were impacted by the Pelican Lake Residential School, which operated from 1927 to 1978, though he says that many students from the communities attended other schools in Ontario: St. Mary’s in Kenora (1897-1972); McIntosh School in McIntosh (1925-1969); Shingwauk in Sault Ste. Marie (1878-1970); and the Mohawk Institute in Brantford (1885-1970). 

The work was supposed to begin earlier, but with the Covid pandemic, travel has been restricted to a few northern communities. Meetings have sometimes been virtual, though he would prefer to be on-site with community members. 

Cutfeet says the first step is to work with survivors and listen to their stories while mapping potential grave sites based on what they share. He says that survivors had talked about hidden graves before, and there were informal searches conducted. The new funding will allow them to use more advanced technology for thorough investigations. 

They’ve also received feedback from communities that have already undertaken this work. Their recommendations: “It’s the survivors and their families that need to take the lead. Take it from there, ensure there are supports available for those persons in the forefront searching.”

The work is divided into five protocols the Bringing our Children Home initiative is focused on: healing, ceremonies, communications, searching and finding, and repatriations. “We’re recording survivor stories to produce a journey document and trauma-informed management plan and engagement with communities. It’s a large area,” Cutfeet added. 

The initiative is planning for spring and fall ceremonies, including one before the National Day of Recognition for Missing Children on May 25. The funding also allows them to hire more staff and lease office space, while bringing in mental health counselling. 

But Cutfeet sees this funding as just the beginning to deal with the “unimaginable trauma” that survivors and intergenerational survivors are dealing with. “The healing journey of our people will need to continue because of intergenerational trauma that exists because of residential schools.

“It’s going to take a long time to heal our nation,” he stated. “Governments need long-term healing initiatives to repair centuries of damage to language and culture. We need to be made whole again.”

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.