Community gathers before Manitoba church basement excavation for unmarked graves begins Wednesday 25 July 2023 06:16 AM: WARNING: This story includes distressing details.

The excavation of potential unmarked graves near a former residential school is the next step on a journey of trauma and healing, say members of a Manitoba First Nation.

Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as Pine Creek First Nation, is working with Brandon University researchers to excavate 14 anomalies found in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church using ground-penetrating radar last year. The church sits beside the former Pine Creek Residential School.

Nation member Brenda Catcheway has been part of the search for unmarked graves since it first began. She says the search is part of the story of Minegoziibe Anishinabe, located about 320 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, because the residential school left traumas that have lasted generations.

"I'm just happy with the stage that we are at and happy that I'm going to be here to complete it," Catcheway said. 

A giant stone church sits in the praries.
Ground penetrating radar detected 14 anomalies in Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church basement. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She was at the church grounds Monday providing a community update on the ongoing search. Her focus was on sharing information about the excavation while ensuring community wellness as the investigation continues.

Catcheway says excavations begin Wednesday and will take a month to complete.

If unmarked graves are found, then remains would be identified using carbon dating, DNA testing and the school's student registry.

Generations of survivors

Catcheway's grandmother and mother were sent to the residential school and she attended the day school located nearby.

Her grandmother worried about sending Catcheway to the facility because of the horrors she faced at the residential school, Catcheway said. She fought to keep Catcheway out of the day school for as long as possible so she would be old enough "to protect herself."

People wear orange shirts and ribbon skirts while walking through a dark basement.
Minegoziibe Anishinabe Nation members walk by orange flags marking anomolies found in the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church basement. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

"She would share stories with me," Catcheway said. "I used to just think she was telling me scary stories, but I think we're coming down to the truth that she was telling me real stories."

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada. 

The Pine Creek school was run by the Roman Catholic Church which operated from 1890 to 1969 in different buildings, including the church, on a large plot of land. 

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a record of 21 child deaths at the school, and survivors have long spoken about abuses at the facility.

The community's first search found 57 additional anomalies at the site around the church and residential school.

However, the initial excavation will focus on the church basement.

Stories growing up

Minegoziibe Anishinabe Nation member Will Charbonneau grew up attending an elementary school beside the former Pine Creek residential school for a decade.

He says as kids, they would hear horror stories about the residential school from their parents.

"All the front classrooms had a view of the church so you would be sitting there every day looking at it going 'there's ghosts in the church,'" Charbonneau said. "We saw it and heard about it every day. We grew up around it."

A man wearing a ball cap looks off into the distance.
Minegoziibe Anishinabe Nation member Will Charbonneau is part of the team excavating the church basement. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Charbonneau says seeing his mom and his grandparents survive attending the Pine Creek day and residential schools gives him a feeling of empowerment. This motivated him to be part of the project, he said, to help bring the children home and help people heal. 

He began working to help map out and excavate the church basement Monday. Charbonneau says it's a difficult journey because each marker is a reminder of children whose stories have been lost.

Keeping the community informed

Emily Holland, Brandon University forensic anthropologist, says researchers are consulting closely to see what the community wants and ensure they are proceeding in a culturally appropriate way.

"The work that we're doing is quite sensitive and if there are individuals in these reflections [anomalies] and they are in fact graves, that's a really difficult thing for the community to have to consider," Holland said.

Two women stand together giving a speech.
Brenda Catcheway, left, and Brandon University forensic anthropologist Emily Holland provide a community update. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Holland has a team that includes two search supervisors, Brandon University students and locals like Charbonneau helping investigate the church basement.

She says local knowledge will be key in the coming month as they begin excavating the anomalies.

"They know where the residential school was, they know who went … they know all of that about their community," Holland said. 

During the community update, children played and sang drum songs — something that would not have been possible when the residential school was open.

Charbonneau says these moments of cultural celebration are part of healing the community.

A group of children play an Indigenous drum.
Children drum opening a community update on the Minegoziibe Anishinabe search for unmarked graves. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

"I'm sure if there are kids here that they are happy today to see kids of our generation being able to do the things that weren't able to do," Charbonneau said.

It was emotional watching the young children drummers, Catcheway said, because it is something she wishes she had growing up.

Elders told her, "Those kids in the basement need to hear the drum and they need to hear kids playing and that's how they'll hear it.

"We're trying to go back to who we are," she said.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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