WARNING: This story includes distressing details.
Before the sun broke through the sky Monday morning, members of a Manitoba First Nation planned to start a month-long search in a good way.
Spiritual advisers were to lead a pipe ceremony in Minegoziibe Anishinabe while a sacred fire was to be lit near where there may be graves of children who were forced to attend residential school.
The sacred fire is expected to burn for the entirety of the estimated four-week-long excavation of an area underneath the Catholic church where 14 anomalies were detected using ground-penetrating radar last year.
“This allows for a trauma-informed, spiritually and culturally sensitive approach to the work that we have to do in the community,” Chief Derek Nepinak said before the ceremony.
Monday is about ensuring elders, survivors and intergenerational survivors of the former Pine Creek Residential School are provided support before ground is expected to be broken Tuesday.
The First Nation, northwest of Winnipeg, is working with archeologists and scientists from Brandon University to conduct the search. Nepinak said it’s the same team that assists police when archeological digs and excavations are conducted in the province.
Before the excavation can start, the team has to “stage an area” where the dig will take place and where materials will be transported.
“It is a very meticulous and focused approach that they’re using,” said Nepinak.
He believes Minegoziibe Anishinabe is one of the first communities in Canada to begin excavating after detecting possible unmarked graves at former residential school sites.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
Survivors of the schools have been speaking out for decades about the possibility of unmarked graves at the sites, prompting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to release a report on missing children and unmarked burials in 2016.
But it wasn’t until Tk’emlups te Secwepemc released its findings of what is believed to be 215 unmarked burials at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in 2021 that the country and the world took notice.
The federal government appointed Kimberly Murray as a special interlocutor on unmarked graves and committed to funding search efforts.
Murray’s interim report last month outlined more than a dozen other First Nations that have begun ground searches, including one in Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan where the partial remains of a child aged four to six were recovered.
Some communities are still grappling with next steps in their search, with some elders expressing concerns about disturbing the ground where a child might lay in rest.
Nepinak said his community hosted multiple engagement sessions and questions came up that he and councillors were unable to answer.
As conversations continued, it became clear survivors needed to know the full truth of what happened.
“We hope that this process will bring some closure to some long-standing questions that people might have about what went on in our homeland and in our territory,” said Nepinak.
The Pine Creek school was run by the Roman Catholic Church and operated from 1890 to 1969 in different buildings, including the church, on a large plot of land.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a record of 21 child deaths at the school, and survivors have long spoken about the abuse there.
The community’s initial search also found 57 additional anomalies found on the grounds around the church and old school site, but the First Nation is focusing its search on the church basement.
“Any human remains that are buried under the church don’t belong buried under a church in our homelands,” said Nepinak.
“We’re doing this out of respect for human life and the dignity that humans are owed in their lifetime.”
Minegoziibe Anishinabe has also been calling on the RCMP to investigate.
Mounties started an investigation last year with the aim of looking into any criminal activity that may be related to the 14 points of interest the community detected.
Police said Friday that investigators were unable to uncover any evidence suggesting something criminal occurred.
They added officers would investigate anything potentially criminal that turns up in the dig.
If any remains are found, the community will work with the coroner’s office on next steps, which may include DNA testing.
Whatever happens, Nepinak hopes the search will provide his nation with the “opportunity to heal and move forward in a better and stronger way.”
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling 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 by online chat.