Pimicikamak calls on federal government to fund search for burials at residential school site

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Elders and leaders in Pimicikimak, a First Nation in northern Manitoba, are calling on the federal government to help them search for burials near the site of a residential school that burned down more than 50 years ago.

“I think the government owes it to the families and also to the communities, that it needs to answer the calls for either forensics or some kind of investigation to determine the identities of those whose lives lost and provide some closure and healing for those communities,” said Pimicikimak Chief David Monias.

On Monday, Monias and the executive council of Pimicikimak sent a letter to the prime minister saying “we are certain that there are bodies to be found on the grounds of the residential school in our community.”

A group of students sit in a residential school classroom in Cross Lake, Man. February 1940. (Department of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada)

“The news of the discovery of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School is yet another sign of the genocide committed against our people,” the letter said.

“It is time we find our loved ones. We call on you to act.”

Monias said, “there’s still untold stories.

“We owe it to the families from Cross Lake, from Norway House, from Gods Lake, Gods River, or Island Lake, whatever child was brought over to the residential school here.”

Pimicikimak was home to the St. Joseph residential school, also known as Cross Lake residential school, which started as a Catholic day school in 1912 and became a residential school in 1915, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website. In 1930, one teacher and 12 children died in a fire that destroyed the school. 

A second school was constructed in the same location in 1940. It burned in 1969 and the building and its other structures were eventually demolished.

Monias, who is a day school survivor, said the community would like to begin searching the residential school grounds as soon as possible. 

The Office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations said in an email Tuesday that “work is progressing” on the subject of funding for searches and that it has been engaging with survivors, families, and organizations on “determining the best path forward to ensure the work is centred on survivors and is culturally sensitive.”

Community gathers

On Monday, the community of Pimicikimak gathered to honour the lives of the children whose remains were found in Kamloops, B.C.

Monias said it was a sombre, healing event with many in attendance wondering if they were standing on burial sites.

Cynthia Robinson, a co-organizer of the gathering, estimated about 200 people paid their respects and took part in a ceremony.

“It was very emotional and I was very happy and pleased that lots of people showed up,” said Robinson.

Councillor Noretta Miswaggon and her children help smudge the people in attendance on Monday. (Helga Hamilton)

Helga Hamilton, Pimicikimak’s director of health programs, said the community has had a long relationship with the church because of the schools and there can be tension between church members and people who are rooted in ceremony. 

“I was really happy to see [that] a lot of us were wearing our ribbon shirts,” said Hamilton, who added there was smudging and drum songs at the gathering.  

“I know there’s people who go to church and it’s fine, but I just don’t want us hating on each other,” she said.

“What I want to see us changing is the lateral violence that we inflict on each other and we had those discussions yesterday. To be good people to each other.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides support for former students and those affected. People can access crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.