Chiefs from two First Nations in Manitoba say their communities are still looking for answers after finding possible graves using ground-penetrating radar at the sites of former residential schools that were run by the Roman Catholic Church. 

Sagkeeng First Nation found 190 anomalies in the soil and Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation located six. Initial data shows the irregularities fit some of the criteria for graves, but both communities say more information is needed.

The news was recently shared with community members.

“We are going to take our time and make sure we do the right thing,” said Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson.

Sagkeeng’s efforts began last year. Residential school survivors shared their memories of areas they thought could have graves linked to the Fort Alexander Residential School. 

The school was opened in 1905 in the community of Fort Alexander, which later became Sagkeeng First Nation. It ran until 1970 and had a reputation for abuse. Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about starvation and harsh discipline.

The community worked with a drone company which conducted ground-penetrating radar on three levels. 

Henderson said it found two locations with anomalies. Neither is a known graveyard, but both were spots residential school survivors had pointed to on maps before the search began.

Henderson said leadership will be consulting with elders, survivors and pipe carriers to decide next steps to confirm whether there are graves. 

"How do we start excavating?" Henderson pondered. "I probably have to bring in archeologists. There’s a lot of work to be done yet."

When the information was shared with community members, they had a feast and ceremony, he said. 

Many community members are struggling with unanswered questions as more anomalies are found, Henderson said. It will take time to find certainty, he added, and only after that can closure and healing begin.

"Now we know locations. Now we know there’s something."

At the Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation, six anomalies are under a church on the site of the former Pine Creek Residential School, said Chief Derek Nepinak. 

Survivors had asked that the area be examined because of "horror stories" about what happened in the basement of the church, he said. 

The First Nation is treating the area like a potential crime scene, he said.

"We are searching for answers, but what we are doing is arriving at more questions," he said.

Minegoziibe Anishinabe also hired a drone technology company that specializes in ground-penetrating radar. The company used a cart to perform a ground search under the church due to the confined space, a community notice said. 

Survivors and community members have directed leadership to do another, more detailed radar search of the basement.

The community is still waiting for results from another area that is suspected to have unmarked burial sites, the chief said. 

The Pine Creek school ran from 1890 to 1969 in a few different buildings 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 abuse at the institution. 

Nepinak said the First Nation has gone through records and knows of dozens of children who died while attending the school but there could be others who are not part of that history. 

Healing will take time, he said. The hope is that it will inform future generations.

"We want the truth to be told and the truth to be known."

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering from trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2022. 

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press