Addressing the issue of suspected burials in Indigenous communities is a delicate and sensitive matter, as highlighted in guidance provided by the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.
This committee, predominantly composed of Indigenous Canadians and experts in various fields, operates independently and is funded by the Canadian government.
The guidance underscores the complexities surrounding Indigenous communities’ responses to suspected burials.
It acknowledges that there may be reluctance to engage in excavation activities due to a combination of factors, including legal considerations, cultural protocols, and teachings that emphasize the importance of respecting burial sites.
While some families may express a desire to relocate remains to more appropriate burial grounds, for others, the knowledge obtained from survivors and research may provide the certainty they seek.
A Glimpse into Community Efforts
Kimberly Murray, the Canadian government’s special interlocutor for missing children, unmarked graves, and burial sites, released an interim report in June.
This report sheds light on the ways individual families and entire communities are undertaking the search for their missing relatives and community members whose fate or burial locations remain unknown.
The report highlights the active involvement of 16 Indigenous communities in searching for anomalies and potential grave sites.
Some of these efforts have led to the discovery of unmarked burial sites, either within known cemeteries or in proximity to marked graves. Additionally, there have been instances where “potential unmarked burials” have been identified.
History of Abuse and Investigations
The former Pine Creek Residential School, which operated from 1890 to 1969, is a significant location in this context. Records from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation indicate that 21 children are known to have died while at this school.
Chief Nepinak emphasized that the inability to locate remains in the church basement should not overshadow the testimonies of abuse that occurred at the school, encompassing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Efforts to investigate the anomalies in the church basement prompted the involvement of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) last year.
Despite additional information provided by community members and elders, the RCMP’s investigation concluded in July without finding evidence of a crime.
Seeking Truth and Understanding
These searches for anomalies and potential graves are not solely aimed at proving past abuses but rather at uncovering the comprehensive truth about the residential school system. It is crucial to recognize that not all anomalies necessarily indicate human remains.
Should some anomalies indeed turn out to be graves, they might encompass a range of individuals, including community members, non-student children, non-Indigenous school staff and their families, as well as religious figures such as nuns and priests.
Prioritizing Acknowledgment and Truth-Telling
Archbishop Gagnon emphasized the commitment of Catholic bishops to acknowledging the immense suffering, trauma, and intergenerational trauma inflicted by the residential schools.
The bishops are dedicated to following up on Pope Francis’ apology and supporting Indigenous communities in their pursuit of truth, language revitalization, and cultural preservation. The overarching goal is to contribute to the ongoing process of truth-telling and reconciliation.