Some searches are done, but other residential school sites in the northeast won’t be checked for several years
Work is underway to check for unmarked graves at former residential schools in northeastern Ontario.
Some searches are complete, others probably won’t start for several years.
But at least one survivor worries that honoring the missing children is no longer the focus.
Mike Cachagee, who attended three different residential schools in northern Ontario, is concerned that much of the funding from provincial and federal governments is going to pay administrators rather than honoring missing children.
“It’s a money grab,” says the 83-year-old, who moved to St. Louis as a young boy. John’s in Chapleau, Shingwauk in Sault Ste. Marie and Horden Hall in Moose Factory.
“You have these big salaries floating around and everyone is lining up to get in on the action now.
“You know when you throw money on the table, there’s not much dignity in it.”
Cachagee says he’s also concerned to hear of some communities considering exhuming bodies or conducting more invasive searches after the ground-penetrating radar identified “anomalies” underground.
Mike Cachagee, 83, who attended three different residential schools in northern Ontario, worries that the search for unmarked graves has become a “money grab.” (Erik White/CBC)
He says it would be a violation of his Cree spiritual beliefs where there is a “clear distinction” between this world and the next and you “don’t cross that line.”
“Identify where they are, give them a dignified and respectful ceremony and then release them. And move on,” Cachagee said, saying he hopes that in some cases family members can be found and notified.
He played a major role in fixing the cemetery at the old St. John’s School in Chapleau, where there are some markers and a list of names of those buried there, but no one is sure if it is accurate.
St. John’s Indian Residential School operated in Chapleau between 1907 and 1948 and its cemetery is one of the few in the north that is properly marked. (Anglican Church of Canada/www.anglican.ca)
The CBC contacted the three First Nations in the Chapleau area, but received no response.
The site of the Shingwauk Residential School, now Algoma University, was scanned with radar in the autumn.
Jay Jones, the president of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, says the results are currently being analyzed but will not be released until they have consulted with most of the 85 First Nations that sent children to the school, probably this spring.
“It’s sad to say it’s an ongoing process and it will change with more opinions coming in,” said Jones, whose parents both attended Shingwauk.
He says he has heard from former students about animal carcasses and other things being buried around the school and worries that revealing how many “aberrations” or “potential graves” they find could be re-traumatizing for survivors and their descendants.
The Shingwauk Indian Residential School, which opened around 1965 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)
“You don’t want to announce a number that might be misleading. You want to be as accurate as possible,” Jones said.
The children of Shingwauk received $404,744 from the federal government, while the nearby Garden River First Nation received $785,770.
Chief Andy Rickard says along with provincial funding they have almost $2 million to work with, but are in no rush to start looking.
“We have to be very careful, we have to be very sensitive and we have to be very slow in how we do this work, right? We just don’t want to rush there,” he said.
Fort Albany First Nation has received $1.3 million from the federal government to search for unmarked graves on the site of the former St. Anne’s Residential School. (Algoma University/Edmund Metatawabin Collection)
Rickard says they are responsible for the former Shingwauk land around Algoma University which is managed by the Shingwauk Educational Trust, as well as the site of the former Wawanosh Girls’ School on Great Northern Road in Sault Ste. Marie.
In recent years, that land has been home to the Royal Canadian Legion and is now slated to be the site of a new housing complex, which Rickard hopes won’t stop while they do their “due diligence.”
“You know when you look at healing, generational trauma, those things are real when you sit in those chairs of leadership,” he said.
“There’s no road map to show you how to do this job… This job is going to be long. We just want to make sure that we’re very sensitive about opening a can of worms and we have all the necessary support in place.”
The Ontario government is providing $37 million for 22 projects across the province, but said in a statement that it would not release the list “out of respect for the privacy of Indigenous partners and the sensitivity of this difficult work.”
Kashechewan First Nation received $675,215 from the federal government and neighboring Fort Albany First Nation, home of the former St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, was given $1.3 million.
Neither community responded to CBC’s requests for comment.
Edmund Metatawabin is a former chief of Fort Albany First Nation who lives in St. attended Anne’s Residential School. (Erik White/CBC)
Former St. Anne student Edmund Metatawabin says a meeting is planned for the end of February to decide on the next steps to search the former school grounds.
“We have to make sure that once we do that, that we don’t just scream and shout that ‘We found another one, we found another one.’ The most important thing is for the spirit that is in hidden cemetery … and the right ceremony to send them on their way,” he said.
“It’s no longer trying to convince Canadians what happened. It’s up to them. If they don’t want to believe it, that’s fine.”
The Spanish Indian Residential School for Boys was run by the Jesuits, while the girls’ school was run by a Roman Catholic educational order, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University)
The Chiefs of Ontario received $741,320 as part of the federal funding program and the Anishinabek Nation was given $583,627.
Grand Chief Reg Niganobe says they have put together a team for the “reconciliation” side of the program, which supports the “caretaker communities” who have potential graves in their area.
That includes Niganobe’s home community of Mississauga, which, along with Serpent River and Sagamok, is focused on the former Spanish residential schools on the shores of Lake Huron, where no searches have yet taken place.
“It’s going to be a long process, just to get to the end of where they hope to go,” he said.
“And just hope for the continued commitment of various different levels of government to see an end or a solution to all of this.”