Pimicikamak Cree Nation begins investigating former residential school site in northern Manitoba

Pimicikamak Cree Nation begins investigating former residential school site in northern Manitoba

by Sue Jones
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Pimicikamak Cree Nation is investigating what was once the main Roman Catholic-run residential school in the area. Chief David Monias says the community has identified 85 children who died there.

Residential School

A group of students and a nun pose in a classroom at a residential school in Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake, in February 1940. (Reuters/Library and Archives Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Pimicikamak Cree Nation will investigate what was once the main Roman Catholic-run residential school in the area for unmarked graves, the northern Manitoba community announced Tuesday.

“It is now our duty to search and locate many of the missing and murdered children from the residential institutions,” Pimicikamak Chief David Monias said in a news release announcing the search of the St. Joseph’s residential school site.

St. Joseph’s, also called Cross Lake Indian Residential School, started taking in boarders in 1912 and operated as a residential school from 1915 until it closed in 1969. It was the the main residential school for northern Manitoba, Monias said in the news release.

There were federally funded schools at two locations near the Pimicikamak community — one at Norway House and one at Cross Lake. Both were destroyed by fires and rebuilt.

Pimicikamak has worked with a researcher to identify the full and partial names of 85 children it believes died while attending the residential institutions in the community, also known as Cross Lake — information the community found out last year.

The community was previously aware of 30 students who died while attending the school through documentation from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Monias said at a news conference Tuesday.

The community is aware of one mass grave for children who died in one of the fires in 1930, he said. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented that one teacher and 12 children died then.

The site investigation will involve ground-penetrating radar, as well as collecting government, medical and church data to develop a database of students’ names.

“We want to know how many children went to school here, how many made it home, and are there more missing children? And if they are missing, where are they buried?” Monias said.

“We need to tell the whole story.”

The biggest problem Pimicikamak First Nation faces with conducting such a search are the many homes which have been developed in the area since the schools burned down, Monias said.

The ground search hasn’t started yet, but it may take up to a year or longer, he said. People in the community still have stories that suggest where graves could be.

Another issue with identifying the children is that many of them were not properly named in the records that exist, he said.

“Many of them are listed as ‘boy,’ as ‘girl.’ There’s about maybe 12 of them like that,” Monias said. “And maybe a good 40 per cent of them have first names only.”

Pimicikamak will look into developing family trees to help identify the children, he said. The community will also use historical documents from Indian agents, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and priests and nuns to provide context for who was in the area at that time.

‘People forget that these were children’

Monias also said he doesn’t like to use the word “school” to describe the institutions.

He referenced what survivors told Pope Francis at the Vatican last week, and said survivors think of the institutions more as “assimilation,” “torture,” or “death” camps than as schools.

Monias said the Pope’s apology for the role some members of the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system fell short.

“Well, first of all, thank you for the apology, but you neglected to mention all the mass graves,” he said.

The Pope’s apology came after a week of talks with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations who travelled to the Vatican last week. The trip followed the discovery over the past year of what are believed to be thousands of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across the country.

Monias said Tuesday the outrage would have likely been increased if Canada had found unmarked graves in any other context.

“But it seems like the more [unmarked] grave sites are found, people tend to accept that as, ‘Oh, another grave,’ and people forget that these were children,” he said.

The community has sent a letter inviting the Pope to visit Pimicikamak, Monias said. Pope Francis has said he plans to visit Canada, but no date has been set.

In addition to its search, Pimicikamak also plans to install a permanent monument to honour former students, including members who attended other residential schools.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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