OTTAWA — An Indigenous group in Canada announced on Wednesday that ground-penetrating radar had located what it said appeared to be the remains of Indigenous children on the grounds of a former school in northwestern Ontario, the latest in a series of similar reports that have been jolting Canada over the last two years.
Chief Chris Skead of the Anishinabe of Wauzhushk Onigum Nation said 171 “plausible” graves of former pupils had been found at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. Five of the potential grave sites are marked.
“As we grieve these findings, remember that we have survived,” Chief Skead said in a video announcement of the preliminary finding to members of Wauzhushk Onigum Nation. “Remember that we are still here, and that has taken our Anishinabe strength, the strength of our ancestors.”
Reports of such remains began in May 2021, when an Indigenous community in British Columbia announced that it had located what it said appeared to be 215 unmarked graves of former pupils at the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School in the province. The revelations have been seen as further proof of the brutality of a now-defunct system of education for Indigenous children that a national commission declared a form of “cultural genocide.”
The educational system included about 130 largely church-run schools set up by the Canadian government in the 19th century, and lasted until the 1990s. It took Indigenous children from their communities, sometimes by force, and barred the use of their languages and cultural practices, sometimes violently. Thousands of students are believed to have died at the schools from disease, malnutrition, neglect, accidents, fires and violence.
The Abuse of Indigenous Children in Canada and the U.S.
A grim history. The discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of defunct residential schools in Canada jolted the country and prompted a federal investigation of similar schools in the United States. Here’s what to know:
The schools. Starting in the 19th century, Indigenous and Native American children were forcibly placed in schools operated by the government and churches. They were made to assimilate to the government’s preferred way of life, often through violence. Disease as well as sexual, physical and emotional abuse were widespread.
In Canada. In 2021, only weeks after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found on the grounds of a former school in British Columbia, the remains of 751 people, mainly Indigenous children, were discovered at the site of a former school in Saskatchewan. Since then, researchers affiliated with Indigenous communities said they have located thousands of possible remains.
In the United States. An Interior Department investigation found that over 500 Native American and Indigenous children died at boarding schools that the federal government forced them to attend between 1819 and 1969. The report also cataloged some of the brutal conditions that the children endured at these schools.
The reckoning. In Canada, the government reached a $31.5 billion settlement to fix the discriminatory child welfare system and compensate the Indigenous people harmed by it. Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s involvement in a July visit to the country. The U.S. report is the first step in a comprehensive review.
Since 2021, researchers affiliated with Indigenous communities said they have used ground-penetrating radar to locate thousands of possible remains on or near former residential school grounds.
Last week, The Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan said that a child’s jawbone had been found on the site of a former residential school. Preliminary results from its ground-penetrating radar search also found many below-ground “anomalies,” some of which may be grave sites, the First Nation said. It plans to drill core samples and test them for human DNA.
In July, Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize to Indigenous people for the role of the Catholic Church, which operated the majority of the schools for the government.
Chief Skead said in an interview that his community’s search, which is not complete, was prompted by the announcement of findings at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The findings in his community and others were more affirmation of the stories of former students than discoveries, he said.
He said the school operated when it “wasn’t a very safe time to be Anishinaabe, let alone a child” of the Anishinaabe.
The St. Mary’s School was operated for the government by an order of the Catholic Church from 1897 until 1972. Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation lists 36 students as having died at the school. But lack of access to former school records, among other factors, means that the center believes that its account greatly understates the numbers of deaths at all schools.
Former students of the school guided anthropologists and ground-penetrating radar experts in the search. But Chief Skead said that the surviving former students believe there may be remains under land so densely overgrown that it defeats the radar system. The community plans to bring in dogs trained to locate human remains for those areas in the spring. It also is in negotiations with some private landowners to investigate their properties.
While students were sent to St. Mary’s from a large number of Indigenous communities, Chief Skead said that the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation members have already decided that no remains will be exhumed. Other Indigenous communities that are conducting searches, which have been supported by the federal government and provinces, are still considering that question.
Ultimately, any land that is likely to have graves will be turned into a memorial site, Chief Skead said. In the interim, he said, the community is taking extra precautions to ensure that remains aren’t unearthed by any construction work.
“We don’t want to rush anything,” Chief Skead said. “We’re really taking our time. We’re being careful, we’re not afraid.”