MONTREAL — The Cree Nation of Chisasibi announced Tuesday that it will search for unmarked graves at the sites of five residential schools that operated on the island of Fort George in northern Quebec.
The nation said it decided to “search for its lost children” through the use of ground-penetrating radar after extensive consultation with the community, including elders, students and residential school survivors.
“The majority of people said, ‘We need to know, let’s get to the truth. We know there was questionable activity,'” chef Daisy House said in an interview.
All five sites are connected to Catholic and Anglican residential schools that were among the largest and oldest in the province, closing in 1981 and 1975 respectively.
House said the Fort George schools were the first in the province of Quebec, dating back to the 1930s, and included First Nations children from the local Cree community and children from other nations in Quebec and Ontario.
The Cree Nation of Chisasibi is among several First Nations who have decided to search residential school sites on their territories after learning in May 2021 that the remains of 215 children had been found using ground-penetrating radar around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
“It all flows from the Kamloops announcement,” House said, adding that ultimately the community left it up to residential school survivors to decide after discussions as a community.
Work will begin this summer, with experts assessing the island, based on aerial photos from federal and provincial archives and using the ancients’ historical knowledge of where these “questionable activities” took place on the island. outside of schools, House said.
The ground search will be difficult given the terrain. The community was moved from Fort George Island to the mainland in 1979-1980 due to a hydroelectric project. Some buildings were moved while others were demolished and burned, including the residential school buildings.
There are two cemeteries which are intact as well as the shell of the old Anglican church. There are also cabins on the island and the community holds an annual gathering there.
“There’s a lot of buried debris and a lot of overgrowth as well, so it’s a very unique situation because of the circumstances of the relocation,” House said. “It’s not like other nations, where they have fields.”
Experts suggest it will take at least two to three years of research and some areas will need to be cleared before the radar can be deployed.
“We will continue to consult with survivors and the experts will guide us,” House said.
House is also asking the Catholic and Anglican churches to share their records to ensure the investigation is productive.
The Grand Council of the Crees congratulated the community on what it called a difficult decision.
“I believe this is the right step forward to address the concerns of former students; bringing to light something that has been kept in the dark for too long, taking the next step in our survivors’ healing journey and seeking the truth. for what is a difficult part of the history of the Cree Nation,” Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said in a statement.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 21, 2022.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press