Wauzhushk Onigum Nation finds 171 anomalies during search of St. Mary’s school site

The former St. Mary's Indian Residential School. Photo: Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre Algoma Unversity.

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A search for unmarked graves at the former grounds of the St. Mary’s Indian Residential School has turned up 171 anomalies according to the community.

“With the exception of five grave markers, the remaining are unmarked by any grave or burial markers. The site has been secured consistent with the Nation’s Anishinaabe protocols,” said the Jan. 17 statement from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation.

“The Nation’s next steps are to gain greater certainty on the number of plausible graves in the cemetery grounds using additional technologies and to conduct additional investigations at several additional sites not covered during the initial investigations that are in the vicinity of the school.”

According to the nation, the sites have been identified through “survivor testimony, archaeological assessment, and archival investigations that show burial that shows burial rituals being conducted by former Residential School staff.”

The statement said that while some of the sites are on the nation’s territory, others are on private property and permissions are being sought to search them.

“The Nation is meeting with Ministers Marc Miller, Greg Rickford, and Patty Hadju, and the Special Interlocuter Kim Murray this afternoon to discuss the Nation’s necessary path forward, including resources to continue the required investigations,” said Chief Chris Skead in the statement.

“We are hopeful that our discussions with Canada and Ontario this afternoon will be productive. Both Canada and Ontario have continued to express their commitment to reconciliation, to the truth, and to the healing of our communities. We look forward to hearing if they will continue to honour these commitments.”

The office of Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford released a statement Tuesday afternoon, calling the discovery heartbreaking.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the community during this difficult time and will continue working with partners to assist with the next phase of this work,” it said.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), St. Mary’s, located in northern Ontario, opened in 1897 and was initially called the Rat Portage Boarding School. It went through a number of name changes before landing on St. Mary’s. The NCTR list 36 children who died at the school which closed in 1972.

Read the NCTR’s timeline for the residential school system here: Residential School Timeline

Star Blanket Cree Nation

Last week, Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan shocked the country when it announced that a search of the former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School had located 2,000 “hits,” including the discovery of a jawbone fragment, found last October, that was identified by the province’s coroner to be that of a child between the ages of four and six from about 125 years ago.

Star Blanket is planning more searches to confirm what has been found.

Wauzhushk Onigum Nation to continue search

The Wauzhushk Onigum Nation also plans to continue its search.

“We have had to exercise additional caution on all projects in the community that require any physical disturbance to the land in fear of disturbing the children. Finding the truth and exercising caution on everything touched by this genocidal legacy comes at a price and it’s a price our Treaty partners need to be prepared to pay,” said Skead.

“That is true reconciliation.”

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