Why Ontario’s plan to locate residential-school graves may not be enough

The process is lengthy, complex, and expensive. TVO.org looks at how gravesite investigations work — and whether the government needs to go further
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jun 29, 2021
Students at St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School take part in a fire drill, circa 1960-65. (Thunder Bay Museum)

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Warning: this story contains subject matter that may be distressing for some readers. 

Chief Peter Collins of Fort William First Nation wants every former residential-school site in Canada to be searched for potential graves — and he says the matter is not up for debate: “We’re not asking. We are demanding that this be done.”  

At a press conference on June 18, Collins said that his community wanted three locations — the former sites of St. Joseph’s residential school, the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital, and a graveyard at the reserve’s original location near the mouth of the Kaministiquia River — be examined. “I think it’s very problematic for Canada to leave this unresolved and let it fester into decades to come,” he tells TVO.org. “I hear them talking about apologies, but for us here, in Fort William, an apology don’t mean a hell of a lot.” 

Fort William, which is located just south of Thunder Bay, has joined the chorus of Indigenous communities calling for investigations into potential unmarked burial grounds near former residential schools. Those calls have intensified in recent weeks, following the discoveries of the remains of 215 children near the former Kamloops residential school, in British Columbia, and of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval residential school, in Saskatchewan. Experts say these investigations can be lengthy and complex, requiring specialized skills — and critics warn that the $10 million over three years that Ontario has dedicated to undertaking them likely won't be enough.  

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There are 18 former residential-school locations in Ontario, the last of which, Stirland Lake High School, closed in 1991. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 426 children died while attending these schools, and an unknown number of children are still missing. The TRC has identified 12 unmarked burial sites in Ontario — and the province says there are likely more.

Finding them is a complicated process. After the investigative team secures the necessary legal permissions, it will first consider the site’s size and condition. “It takes a very experienced eye, a certain amount of luck, and a lot of hard work in order to evaluate the ground,” says Scott Hamilton, an archeologist at Lakehead University. “You don’t want to do this over thousands and thousands and thousands of square metres.” 

Map of Ontario residential schools
A map of former residential schools in Ontario. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission/Matthew O'Mara)

Where the ground is flat and landscaped, investigators will often use ground-penetrating radar — as they did at the Kamloops site — to conduct their search. But this method doesn’t work as well on uneven terrain with thick vegetation. “In many circumstances of residential schools now,” Hamilton says, “it would be like dragging a baby carriage through an alder swamp because of all the vegetation. In order to conduct an effective survey under those conditions, you’ve got to clear a lot of that surface vegetation out of the way so the machinery can be effectively operated.” It’s a huge amount of work, he says, and it must be done carefully so that any surface evidence of a burial place isn’t disturbed.  

According to the Canadian Archaeological Association, which has compiled resources for Indigenous communities that are considering investigations, ground-penetrating radar isn’t the only means of identifying graves. For example, you can use a magnetometer to measure variations in the magnetic field of a given location, which can be useful for detecting grave markers or caskets. Or you can examine differences in the electrical resistivity — how strongly a material resists electrical current — over a parcel of land to locate things that wouldn’t normally be present there. These methods can help archeologists identify buried objects that have “different physical properties from the surrounding soil,” according to the CAA. “And it is these differences that are detected and mapped.” 

If the site is mostly clear of vegetation, Hamilton says, an aerial camera may be used to “identify grave shafts that have collapsed, creating elongated depressions or low mounds” or to see remnants of decomposed grave markers, such as wooden crosses or fencing. “Approaching this problem means thinking about it carefully, getting your information organized, soliciting information from a number of different sources, and then coming up with an investigation strategy,” he says. 

All that costs money. Phases 1 and 2 of Ontario’s $10 million proposal for the investigations — which emphasizes Indigenous-led decision-making and culturally appropriate mental-health and trauma support — would involve gathering information from residential-school survivors and their families; provincial engagement with community leaders to help guide the investigation; and burial-site identification and fieldwork. 

The third and final phase would involve forensic analysis of remains found at burial sites, as well as repatriation and commemoration. “I think it’s pretty safe to say, given the overwhelming response by people across the country — and here in Ontario was no exception — that the people of Ontario want this kind of support to be provided,” says Greg Rickford, minister of Indigenous affairs.

Children and nuns at the St. Joseph Indian Residential School
Children and nuns in front of the main entrance of St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School, circa 1907. (Thunder Bay Museum)

NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, who represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong, welcomed the government’s plan but called it “a drop in the bucket” during a press conference on June 15. Mamakwa, a residential-school survivor, also said that Rickford broke his promise to brief Mamakwa prior to the announcement. (Rickford tells TVO.org that Mamakwa and his staff “were given a full briefing very shortly after the announcement was made.”) 

Collins agrees that the $10 million commitment is “probably the tip of an iceberg,” noting that costs can quickly mount. “What happens — and where do the resources come from — if you start finding deceased on these properties, and exhuming all those bodies, and doing the identification process, and rehabilitating those sites back to a condition acceptable for the folks occupying them now?” he asks. “I think $10 million for 133 First Nations in Ontario is not much to work with, but it’s a start.” 

In response to funding-related criticism, Rickford says, “there is no exact science, but everything that we were considering pointed to a sizable resource. Ten million dollars is no small amount of money.” He also suggests that more funding could be provided later. “We’ve obviously left an opportunity … to make further investments.” 

To Collins, the investigations are partly about accountability. “I use George Floyd as an example. George Floyd had somebody that was accountable for the loss of his life. Who will ever be held accountable for the loss of the lives of the loved ones they find?” he says. “The government needs to own up to its responsibilities. The churches, they need to own up to their responsibilities.” 

For Fort William, the next step is to access support from the federal and provincial governments in order to facilitate a survey of the three sites that the community wants to see investigated. If graves are found there, Collin says, he expects the response will be two-fold: “The feeling would be heartache, but at the same time, for communities, for families, for loved ones, it would be closure — and the opportunity to really say goodbye to someone.” 

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports. 

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

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college. 

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman. 

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