Canada bishops address ongoing search for Indigenous graves amid calls for greater accuracy

Sep 15, 2023 7 Min Read
facebook envelope print

No human remains were found in last month’s excavation of a Catholic church basement on Pine Creek First Nations lands in Manitoba, Canada, after the community asked a Brandon University archaeological team to conduct excavations in the search for any missing children who might have died decades ago in the community’s former residential school.

In the summer of 2022, ground-penetrating radar discovered 71 anomalies on the lands of Pine Creek First Nation, also known as the Minegoziibe Anishinabe. Most anomalies were located in known burial areas on the grounds of the former Catholic-run Pine Creek Residential School. The community was surprised to find 14 of these anomalies in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, prompting fears the church held possible graves and a crime scene. However, excavations from late July to mid-August of this year failed to find any human remains.

In an Aug.18 video posted to Facebook, Chief Derek Nepinak of Pine Creek First Nation said: “The results of the excavation take nothing away from the difficult truths experienced by our families who attended the residential school in Pine Creek … As a community, we identified the possibility of something very tragic and difficult for our families, and we pursued the truth of it with no certainty about the outcome.”

The First Nation community is still deciding how to respond to the other 57 anomalies in the known burial areas.

Their search effort comes as Canada is reckoning with the history of its government-backed residential school program to assimilate Indigenous people. The schools were operated by Catholic and Protestant groups.

About 150,000 children attended the schools in the 19th and 20th century, often with Indigenous children from other communities far from home. More than 4,000 children died, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza were the major killers. A 2015 government inquiry recorded many former students’ testimonies of abuse, substandard living conditions, family separation, and policies of “cultural genocide” to eliminate Indigenous culture.

Many children who died were buried on school grounds, in non-school community graveyards, or on hospital grounds in graves that have since faded from memory and lost any perishable markings. Students were given new non-Native names and parents were not always notified of the children’s deaths and places of burial. Poor recordkeeping and lost or destroyed records have compounded the problems.

Indigenous communities are now using ground-penetrating radar to try to locate potential grave sites while also drawing on surviving records and the testimony of community elders.

In 2021, initial reports of hundreds of suspected grave anomalies at two school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan prompted a wave of violence and vandalism against Catholic and other churches, including churches serving Indigenous Christian congregations. Dozens of Catholic churches in Canada were vandalized or burned down after the announcement, The B.C. Catholic newspaper reported.

News of these anomalies also led to other major events. As Tristan Hopper pointed out in a Sept. 3 article in the National Post: “The surveys would help spawn a new holiday, Truth and Reconciliation Day, prompt an official visit by Pope Francis, and result in Canadian flags being kept at half-mast for a record-breaking five consecutive months.”

But to date, Hopper pointed out, “of the hundreds of suspected graves identified starting in 2021, Pine Creek is the only one that has been followed up with an archeological dig.”

Not all anomalies are expected to be potential graves, and Indigenous communities are often reluctant to disturb suspected burial sites.

One child’s remains were uncovered near a residential school since searches began. In southwest Saskatchewan last fall, the Star Blanket Cree Nation searched the site of the former Lebret Indian Industrial School and found the fragment of a child’s jawbone in an unmarked grave far from any known graveyard. The provincial coroner’s service identified the bone fragment as from a child between the ages of 4 and 6 and dated it to about 125 years ago, CBC News reported. The school was operated under Catholic auspices from 1884 to 1969, though it is unknown how the child died or whether the child was a student at the school.

In an April 20 statement, shíshálh Nation said ground-penetrating radar had identified 40 unmarked shallow graves of children near the former St. Augustine’s Indian Residential School in British Columbia, a Catholic-run institution. Chief yalxwemult’ Lenora Joe asked the media and the public to respect the community’s healing process. The community has not made statements outside of media releases.

Other communities have conducted searches without finding any anomalies, though these are not listed in the interim report.

Calls for ‘a truly accurate historical picture’

The failure to find evidence of “mass graves,” as many media reports categorized the discovery of anomalies, has prompted some observers to call for greater accuracy in documenting what really happened to Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

“No one aware of the sordid story of the Indian Residential School system, or the broader facts of Canada’s long mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples, legitimately denies our shameful past,” Peter Stockland wrote in Canada’s Catholic Register Sept. 7. “There’s zero evidence of a national urge to airbrush such history. But after a period of outpouring of hard truths, demand is mounting for clarifying questions and answers. The justification offered is a stated desire for a truly accurate historical picture.”

Stockland suggested a cultural divide is at work in the efforts to recover history: Non-Indigenous Canadians approach the claims of unmarked graves as “forensic matters subject to the procedures of criminal investigation, evidence-gathering, and proof beyond reasonable doubt.” But in his view, “many Indigenous leaders make clear repeatedly that the search for children in graves is not about bodily validation of that mistreatment. It’s about mourning the dead: dead children, that is, lost and too often forgotten ancestors.”

Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry of Calgary has said the Catholic Church in Canada should press the government for proof about missing children whose parents didn’t know what happened to them.

“Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential child is actually missing in the sense that his [or] her parents didn’t know what happened to their child at the time of the child’s death?” he wrote in an email to Toronto’s Catholic Register in August.

Henry said he went to Catholic media because he had not received a response to an initial group email he sent to his fellow bishops earlier in the summer.

The New York Post in August cited several observers, including Jacques Rouillard, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Montreal, who voiced concern about the reporting of the alleged graves.

“I don’t like to use the word hoax because it’s too strong, but there are also too many falsehoods circulating about this issue with no evidence,” Rouillard said.

Catholic bishops respond

Despite historical questions and cultural tensions in Canada, the country’s Catholic bishops have said they will continue to support Indigenous communities while acknowledging the failings of Catholics involved in the Church-run residential school system.

“It is good that rigorous research is being conducted by professionals to understand better what happened at the schools. The bishops are supportive of such research,” Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg told CNA Sept. 6. “They also understand and share the desire for truth to be at the heart of reconciliation.”

“That said, it is the priority of the bishops at this time to lead the Church in finding ways to walk with Indigenous peoples, to build relationships, to apologize when appropriate for suffering experienced within Church-operated institutions, and to be allies in the pursuit of justice,” Gagnon said.

The Canadian newspaper The Catholic Register, citing Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton and Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina, said the bishops collectively “have chosen to listen rather than respond to every event and demand arising from the process.”

Reluctance to excavate

A community’s response to suspected burials is “a very sensitive conversation,” a guide from the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials points out. The Canadian government-funded independent body is composed of predominantly Indigenous Canadians and experts in archival research, archeology, forensics, and police investigations.

The guide notes that Indigenous communities may be reluctant to excavate, in part because of various laws, protocols, and teachings about honoring burial sites. Some families may want to move the remains to a more suitable burial place, but for others, the guide states, “the knowledge of survivors and other research may provide all the certainty they seek.”

Kimberly Murray, the Canadian government’s special interlocutor for missing children, unmarked graves, and burial sites, released a June interim report on how individual families and entire communities are searching for relatives and members whose fate or place of burial are unknown.

The report lists 16 Indigenous communities searching for anomalies and possible grave sites. Some searches have recovered unmarked burial sites at known cemeteries or near marked graves, while others have detected “potential unmarked burials.”

Abuse history prompted church basement dig

The former Pine Creek Residential School was operational from 1890 to 1969, and 21 children are known to have died there, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which keeps a list of children who died while at a residential school based on surviving Church and government records.

Chief Nepinak noted that the failure to find remains in the church basement is separate from the testimony about the abuse at the school.

“There’s still a living memory of tremendous atrocity, of abuse that happened ranging from physical to emotional to sexual abuse,” Nepinak told the The Canadian Press.

CNA contacted Pine Creek First Nation for comment but did not receive a response by publication.

Pine Creek First Nation has a registered membership of 3,170 people, about 1,200 of whom live on reserve land. The discovery of the anomalies in the church basement prompted the community to call in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) last year, The Globe and Mail reported. Though community leaders said that elders and community members had “additional knowledge and information in relation to these anomalies,” the RCMP investigation ended in July without finding any evidence of a crime, Manitoba RCMP said in a statement.

Sean Carleton, assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, told CBC News in August that the searches aim to learn the full truth about the residential school system rather than prove abuses happened. They are “part of that ongoing work of really understanding what was going on in that school specifically and with the system as a whole.”

He said it is important to realize that not all anomalies will be human remains.

If some anomalies prove to be graves, they could be graves of community members, children who were not students, or non-Indigenous school staff and their children, as well as nuns and priests, Scott Hamilton, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, told The B.C. Catholic in 2021.

Archbishop Gagnon told CNA the Catholic bishops have prioritized acknowledging “the tremendous suffering, trauma, and intergenerational trauma” caused by the schools. They have also prioritized “following up on Pope Francis’ apology” and his encouragement to take a path of solidarity with Indigenous peoples in support of truth and supporting Indigenous languages and culture. The archbishop noted the goal of assisting in “the ongoing work of truth-telling.”

Article Tags


Start your day with Always Forward!

A daily email newsletter to help you better understand the Church and the world.