OTTAWA — Anger and grief have boiled over in northern Manitoba, with some Cross Lake residents relieved to see a local former school building go up in flames early Thursday.
A week after 215 unmarked children’s graves in Kamloops, B.C., came to light, Ottawa is facing increasing pressure to help First Nations figure out how to search potential burial sites near old residential schools.
”We’re not supported,” Cross Lake Chief David Monias said, his voice rising at a Friday news conference.
”It’s frustration for the lack of address, the lack of community engagement and a lack of partnership.”
His band has called in a global body specializing in mass graves to help search Cross Lake reserve.
Meanwhile, another northern reserve has enlisted free help from engineering/construction company SNC-Lavalin to look for unmarked cemeteries.
This week, Ottawa reallocated $27 million for Indigenous research on residential schools to instead be used for archeological surveys.
But the process has been unclear to many of the bands who administer the 14 recognized Indian Residential School sites in Manitoba.
Monias, whose community sits 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg, appealed directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help Monday. He said he hasn’t had a clear answer since.
”He has not lived up to his word.”
On Thursday, a former day school in Cross Lake — a building that had also been used by a former residential school — was severely damaged by fire. RCMP suspect it was caused by arson.
The building had been used for administering flood compensation and maternal health programs.
”It’s a resource to us because we don’t have many buildings in the community we can use,” Monias said.
”For many people, it’s a constant reminder of what happened in the past… of the deaths that occurred, of the sexual abuse that occurred.”
Those were documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which also found nuns addressed students by number, instead of by name when the school ran 1912-69.
Similar accounts stem from the Notre Dame Hostel, which ran in Cross Lake from 1960 to 1967.
Children from different Manitoba reserves attended those schools, as well as some locals whose parents lived just across the river but couldn’t visit.
Children’s graves have already been found on the reserve over the years, Monias said.
On Friday, the community announced it has enlisted the help of the International Commission on Missing Persons.
The Netherlands-based organization helps examine everything from mass graves to the 2013 Lac-Mégantic oil-train disaster in Quebec.
”We are not waiting for the bureaucracy to open up, or to receive notification that there’s a process we have to go through to access funds. (It’s) another bureaucracy, to stall the work that needs to be done,” Monias said.
Murray Sinclair, the former Manitoba judge who chaired the TRC, has called on Ottawa to fund and help Indigenous groups search burial sites.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg has joined prominent academics by calling on Ottawa to set standards for searches so evidence can be documented and used in potential criminal trials.
Trudeau said Friday he’d be open to such standards, but still hasn’t promised Ottawa will help set them.
”Obviously, the rigour and the professionalism and the sensitivity — and ideally a certain amount of shared processes across the country — would make sense, but those are things that the government will not be dictating,” the prime minister said, in response to questions from the Free Press.
”Those decisions need to be led by and centred on the families, the survivors and the communities that are at the heart of this historical and ongoing tragedy.”
That’s not enough for Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton, who said the Liberals are asking traumatized communities to go through an ad hoc process.
”The wounds have been ripped open again; the facade that is reconciliation has been uncovered,” Ashton said.
”There has been no intent from the government to bring in any sort of international body or international experts. That is not acceptable; what we’re talking about here is genocide.”
Next week, Opaskwayak Cree Nation will vote on whether to accept an offer from SNC-Lavalin to do a local search using ground-penetrating radar.
”SNC-Lavalin is offering, without charge, our expertise and assistance,” reads a Friday letter to chiefs across Canada, obtained by the Free Press.
SNC-Lavalin confirmed the letter, and said it was the result of employees wanting to offer help. It said the Quebec-based firm is deliberately not giving interviews and didn’t want to be seen as trying to gain publicity from tragic situations.
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The radar passes signals through soil, in order to detect obstructions or changes in the top two metres of soil, such as the presence of gravel and clay. SNC-Lavalin says it takes eight to 10 hours to survey a 10-km-square area.
The firm would then pass along a digital file and graphics that experts can use to perform excavations.
Opaskwayak, 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, housed the Guy Hill residential school, and also wants to search its former day school area.
”It’s to ensure that we do justice to our ancestors, and the challenges of the past here,” said OCN Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair, who was not aware of any prior grave finds.