TRIGGER WARNING: This announcement pertains to investigations being conducted at former Indian Residential School grounds. Discretion is advised.
WAUZHUSH ONIGUM NATION The Kaatagoging Survivors Group of the St. Mary’s Residential School Survivor Project commenced investigations at one of the sites of the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in May 2022. The work was started with Ceremony and has received financial support from both Canada and Ontario.
The studies conducted by the Nation’s technical, archaeological and GPR team and informed by Survivor testimony are showing at least 171 anomalies (plausible burials) within cemetery grounds associated with the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. With the exception of five grave markers, the remaining are unmarked by any grave or burial markers. The site has been secured consistent with the Nation’s Anishinaabe protocols.
The Nation’s next steps are to gain greater certainty on the number of plausible graves in the cemetery grounds using additional technologies and to conduct additional investigations at several additional sites not covered during the initial investigations that are in vicinity of the school. These additional sites have been identified through Survivor testimony, archaeological assessment, and archival investigations that show burial rituals being conducted by former Residential School staff. Some of the sites to be investigated are on private lands and the Nation is continuing to pursue access to these.
The Nation is meeting with Ministers Marc Miller, Greg Rickford, and Patty Hadju, and the Special Interlocuter Kim Murray this afternoon to discuss the Nation’s necessary path forward, including resources to continue the required investigations. “We are hopeful that our discussions with Canada and Ontario this afternoon will be productive. Both Canada and Ontario have continued to express their commitment to reconciliation, to the truth, and to healing of our communities. We look forward to hearing if they will continue to honour these commitments”, said Chief Chris Skead. “Since 215, we have had to exercise additional caution on all projects in the community that require any physical disturbance to the land in fear of disturbing the children. Finding the truth and exercising caution on everything touched by this genocidal legacy comes at a price and it’s a price our Treaty partners need to be prepared to pay. That is true reconciliation”, he added.
At this time, the Nation requests that their privacy be respected. The Nation will continue to inform the country of findings as they emerge.
Canada’s Residential School System, in operation from 1831 through 1996, existed with the express purpose of assimilating Indigenous students into Euro-Canadian culture. An estimated 150,000 children attended these schools; former students regularly describe overwhelmingly negative experiences in which extreme physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse pervaded. Over 6,000 children are known to have died, however records are incomplete, and this number is believed to be much higher.
St. Mary’s Indian Residential School (“St. Mary’s”) was a Roman Catholic residential school in operation between 1897 and 1972. Between 1897 and 1937 St. Mary’s changed names a total of three times, also being known as the Rat Portage Boarding School, the Kenora Boarding School, and the St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School before being changed to St. Mary’s in 1938. During the 1960s, St. Mary’s began integrating students into the local day school system.
Over 6,114 children attended St. Mary’s from sixteen Treaty #3 communities, seven communities in Manitoba, and ten eastern communities during its 75 years of operation. According to records provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 36 children died while the school was in operation. Based on conversations with survivors, and their testimonies, the true number is believed to be significantly higher.
The Kaatagoging Project
This multi-year project has three overarching goals: uncover the truth, locate the unmarked graves, and establish a pathway to healing, including appropriate memorialization of students who were lost. The location work will involve archaeological assessment and the use of ground penetrating radar, among other field methods. The entire process is guided by ceremony and implements trauma-based approaches to healing and care as the community undertakes this difficult work. The process is also guided by four traditional principles including:
- Bebekaa (take our time) – undertake due process to make sure protocols are respected.
- Weweni (doing it right) – do things properly, from the beginning.
- Biiziindun (listen) – a commitment to listen to Elders, survivors, men, women, and youth.
- Gego Gotachiken (don’t be afraid) – we have been taught to be afraid, but we will not be afraid of
- implementing traditional laws and principles.
These principles further emphasize the sacred nature of this work and convey the long timeline that is expected. The need for healing is a very culture-specific process and involves acknowledgement of how the land, the language, and the people are forever connected. In this vein, the Kaatagoging Survivors Group emphasizes the fallacy of the Doctrine of Discovery – the land was not “discovered” by settlers as the fifteenth century papal bulls proclaim but has, instead and always, belonged to the First Peoples.These beliefs, and subsequent legal and moral justifications for colonial dispossession, must also be healed and reconciled.
The work undertaken by the Nation has been informed first and foremost by Anishinaabe protocols. The Kaatagoging Survivors Group has established several protocols, including a Search Protocol, a Material Archives Protocol, a Drum Feast Protocol, a Healing Protocol, a Working Together Protocol, an External Communications Protocol, an Information Sharing Protocol, and a Forensics Technical Guidance Protocol.
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