WARNING: This story contains distressing details
A ground penetrating radar (GPR) search for unmarked graves on the site of the former Pine Creek Residential School began on Monday with ceremony including a sacred fire, drumming and community elders speaking.
The Catholic-run residential school in Pine Creek First Nation, about 440 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, was built in the 1890s and closed in 1969. The building was demolished in 1972.
Chief Derek Nepinak said the process is a difficult task to undertake, but a necessary one.
“We feel that the truth of our community has to be identified, and it has to be told by us, by our own people,” Nepinak said.
He said some community members feel the past should be left alone, but said it’s important for the youth to know what happened.
“Our young people deserve to know the true history of who we are and our relationship with the Catholic church,” he said.
“It’s not all roses. It’s been difficult and traumatic, and it’s the truth.”
AltoMaxx began the search this week. Nepinak said the search of about 65 hectares is expected to take at least four weeks over the spring and summer. Both a GPR-equipped drone and a GPR push cart will be used.
He said one of the priority areas they’re starting with is the church, which is located beside the school site.
Jennifer Rocchio, a member of Pine Creek First Nation who lives in St. Anne, Man., said her grandmother attended the residential school with some of her siblings, one of whom did not return home.
“His name is Thomas and he was 11,” she said.
“He never came home from residential school, so everyone is looking forward to hopefully getting his remains so they can do a proper burial for him.”
Rocchio said Thomas had gotten into an altercation with students at the school, and instead of being taken to a nurse after getting hurt, he was brought to a punishment area and died a couple of days later.
Rocchio said the family is hoping for closure and healing with the search.
“We’re very grateful and thankful for all the energy of each person that is doing this work,” she said.
“It’s devastating for families, because the curses from residential school trickle down to even my generation and my daughter’s generation.”
Nepinak said he hopes the search will be a form of healing.
“Maybe we can find a path toward reconciliation at some point … and this is the starting point for that,” he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.