Chisasibi moves forward with radar search of former residential school sites in Fort George, Quebec


George E. Pachano, left, and his wife, Marie Louise Chakapash Pachano, right, with Avaya, five, in front of a cross that marks the site of the last Anglican boarding school on the island of Fort George, located near the current Chisasibi. After extensive consultations with survivors and experts, officials here are moving forward with a ground-penetrating radar search for the island. (Susan Bell/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

For George E. Pachano and his wife, Marie-Louise, the decision to use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to search for the sites where they attended residential school in northern Quebec is a difficult but important step in the healing journey of their people.

“We asked for it… It’s like a burden lifted,” said Pachano, who attended St. Philip’s (Anglican) Indian Residential School on Fort George Island from 1967 to 1971.

Amid National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations, Cree officials announced Tuesday in Chisasibi that several sites associated with the first two residential schools in Quebec will be excavated over the next two years using GPR and other technologies. .

Pachano and his wife helped organize several healing gatherings of survivors from both schools – St. Philip’s, which operated from 1933 to 1975 and the Fort George Roman Catholic Residential School (also known as Ste-Thérèse-de- l’Enfant-Jésus), which ran from 1937 to 1981.

Pachano says that over the years people have continued to share stories of children who died but never had a funeral. It was impossible to get any real information.

“I think it’s worth knowing if it’s true or not and with a GPR going on we can put these rumors to rest or if they’re true…that’s good [to know]“, said Pachano. But he added that the survivors – and the community – will need a lot of support during the search.

A group of men and women are seated facing the camera.  Behind them, an orange banner reads: Never Forget Us.
Survivors, including an empty chair for children who did not return home, witnessed Tuesday’s announcement that Chisasibi will conduct a ground-penetrating radar search of Fort George Island. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Officials also released a 25-page report on Tuesday about what they learned through extensive consultation, records, old photographs and stories from survivors who attended the oldest residential schools in the province.

They say a lack of information, even about the precise location of ancient schools, and a lack of Catholic Church records, in part led them to the decision to go ahead with a search at radar penetrating sites.

“We recognize that the lives of these children have been taken from a place where they were meant to be protected and loved,” Chisasibi Chief Daisy House said in a statement.

The children who were taken from their families and sent to schools came from several Cree communities, as well as Mashteuiatsh, Lac St-Jean, Temiscaming, Moosonee, Attawapiskat, Albany and others.

WATCH | An emotional Daisy House chef speaks about the impact of missing children:

The community of Chisasibi announces that it will begin the search for remains in the residential schools

Chisasibi Chief Daisy House is joined by Elder Janie Pachano who attended St Phillips Anglican Boarding School on Fort George Island for an announcement on the use of ground penetrating radar and honoring children who never returned.

“We owe it to them, their families and those who loved them to honor them with the dignity they have always deserved,” House said, a sentiment that was echoed by the Grand Chief of the Cree Nation. Mandy Gull-Masty, who also spoke in Chisasibi. .

“Are there any unmarked graves? Gull-Masty said, adding that in other parts of the world, talking about unmarked graves would qualify as genocide or crimes against humanity.

“But here in Canada, it’s just a calculation. Unacceptable,” she said.

Questions, rumors but few answers

The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation has records that show the remains of 16 former students were buried on the island of Fort George, but there have long been questions and rumors about this, and officials say they hope doing research will help survivors and communities heal.

George Pachano’s wife, Marie-Louise Chakapash Pachano, attended the Catholic boarding school in Fort George from 1965 to 1972. She remembers seeing things that made her wonder about what was happening to the children.

“I hope the truth will eventually come out,” she said. “Hopefully we will heal and we can help our grandchildren and great-grandchildren heal.”

Cree officials also reiterated their call for the Catholic Church to release its records of Fort George schools, as the Anglican Church has done.

A woman in an orange sweatshirt and multicolored ribbon skirt stands by a grave on rough terrain.
Marie-Louise Chakapash Pachano attended the Catholic boarding school in Fort George. (Susan Bell/CBC)

There are a total of five sites where the two boarding schools [three Anglican and two Catholic] operated for over 50 years.

All buildings have been demolished and much of the debris buried on the island, which will make the radar search more complex, officials say.

“The island has reclaimed some of these sites, and exploring them has been made more difficult as a result,” Chief House said.

Officials say the research will be conducted starting this summer using a technology called LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, and generates precise three-dimensional information about the Earth’s shape and surface features. .

Elderly people and survivors will continue to be consulted to help identify priority sites, based on LIDAR results and possibly ground-penetrating radar will be used.

The Cree Nation of Chisasibi has accessed some of the federal funding set aside to help communities where former residential schools are located, but it says the money is limited.

Local officials say they are currently working with the Cree Nation Government to help secure further funding, and that other locations across Canada have partnered with universities to carry out the radar searches.

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay operates the Wiichihiiwaauwin (mental health helpline) at 1-833-632-4357. Support is available in Cree 24/7.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional referral and crisis services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.

The Indian Residential School Survivor Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll free at 1-800-721-0066.