Researchers, academics and First Nations communities from across the country are gathering in Winnipeg this week to share what they’ve learned from the search for unmarked graves at former residential schools.
The Remembering the Children rally on Sunday and Monday, hosted by the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, drew about 250 people, with more participating virtually.
Organizer Brenda Gunn says starting a search for potential graves can be challenging and time-consuming, with a number of obstacles along the way.
“This work will take decades,” said Gunn, who is academic and research director at the Winnipeg-based centre.
“From doing research before you go into the field to interpreting the data once the field search is complete and then deciding what to do, what steps should be taken if there are potential graves that have been identified.”
Those challenges can be mitigated by sharing information and best practices, Gunn said.
“By bringing together different researchers who have different experiences in doing that archival research, in doing oral history, we can really share experiences and learn from each other… We’re really trying to share information in the communities that are doing these projects,” she said. .
The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba has been working to identify burial sites in and around the former Brandon Residential School since 2012.
Elder Lorraine Pompana, a retired Sioux Valley counselor and school survivor, believes her community’s decade of work trying to get more information about those who died in residential schools to their living family members can help others.
“Getting input from a variety of groups here that are doing the same objective work will help everyone along the way,” Pompana said.
“I think there will be more connections as we go forward … it gives us the responsibility and the commitment to keep going.”
The First Nation has identified 104 potential graves in the three cemeteries, but only 78 have been documented through historical records, the chief said earlier in a statement.
It’s especially important to connect with people from across Canada because the children who were forced to attend the Brandon residential school came from all over the country, said Kathryn Nichols, the First Nations project manager in charge of their search for the missing children.
“Trying to identify affected communities and living family members is really essential to the next steps for these investigations,” Nichols said.
She said it was invaluable to connect with other researchers to discuss the challenges they faced, including accessing private land to search for burial plots and searching for archival information.
Nichols hopes there will be legislation in the next year or two to help navigate those scenarios, as more communities start searching for potential unmarked graves.
“I think Canada has to be prepared that these searches will be going on for many years to come.”
‘The children have been waiting for us for a long time’
Darrell Boissoneau, of the Garden River First Nation, also known as Ketegaunseebee, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also participated in the Winnipeg event.
The cultural manager and special projects manager for the Ojibway band says it’s important for Canada to know the truth about what happened to Indigenous children in schools.
“Our rights were always swept under the carpet. We were considered less than human,” he said.
Boassoneau says he hopes the rally will help chart a course for different communities who are in different places in their quest for justice.
“If you look across the country, everyone is at different stages. Some people have already started breaking ground, some haven’t, some are just starting. We’re at different levels,” he said.
“Those children have been waiting for us for a long time and now that we are here, we can start with the really important work that lies ahead of us.”
The “Remembering the Children” rally will continue on Tuesday, with a focus on commemorating the lives of those who died in schools and healing from those losses, as well as protecting the places where the graves are located.
Support is available to anyone affected by the schools experience or the latest reports.
India’s National Residential School Crisis Line has been established to provide support to 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.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or via online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.