WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
For George E. Pachano and his wife, Marie-Louise, the decision to use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to search the sites where they went to residential school in northern Quebec is a difficult but important step in the healing journey of their people.
"We've been asking for it … It's like a burden is lifted," said Pachano, who attended St. Philip's Indian Residential School (Anglican) of Fort George Island from 1967 to 1971.
Against a backdrop of National Indigenous People's Day celebrations, Cree officials announced Tuesday in Chisasibi that several sites associated with the first two residential schools in Quebec will be searched over the next two years using GPR and other technology.
Pachano and his wife have helped organize several healing gatherings of survivors of the two schools — St. Philip's, which operated from 1933-1975 and the Fort George Roman Catholic Residential School (also known as Ste-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus), which operated from 1937 to 1981.
Pachano says over the years people continued to share stories of children who died but never had any burial. It was impossible to get any real information.
"I think it's worth finding out if it's true or not and with a GPR being done we can put those rumours to rest or if they are true…. it's good [to know]," said Pachano. But he said survivors — and the community — will need a lot of support as the search is carried out.
Officials also released a 25-page report Tuesday into what they have learned through extensive consultations, records, old photographs and stories of survivors who attended the longest operating residential schools in the province.
They say a lack of information, even about the precise location of the former schools, and a lack of documents from the Catholic Church, in part led them to the decision to move ahead with a ground penetrating radar search of the sites.
"We recognize that these children's lives were taken at a place where they were supposed to be protected and loved," said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House, breaking down.
The children who were taken from their families and sent to the schools came from several Cree communities,as well as Mashteuiatsh, Lac St-Jean, Témiscaming, Moosonee, Attawapiskat, Albany, and others.
WATCH | An emotional Chief Daisy House talks of the impact of the missing children:
"We owe it to them and to their families and those who loved them, to honour them with the dignity they always deserved," said House, a sentiment that was echoed by Cree Nation Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, who also spoke in Chisasibi.
"Are there unmarked graves?" said Gull-Masty, adding that in other regions of the world, talk of unmarked graves would be called a genocide or crimes against humanity.
"But here in Canada it is simply a calculation. Unacceptable," she said.
Questions, rumours but few answers
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has records that show the remains of 16 former students were buried on Fort George Island, but there have long been questions and rumours about more, and officials say they hope doing a search will help survivors and communities heal.
George Pachano's wife, Marie-Louise Chakapash Pachano, attended the Catholic residential school on Fort George from 1965 to 1972. She remembers seeing things that left her with questions about what happened to children.
"I'm hoping the truth will come out eventually," she said. "I hope we will get healing and we can help our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren heal."
Cree officials also repeated a call for the Catholic Church to release its records about the Fort George schools, as the Anglican Church has begun to do.
There are a total of five sites where the two residential schools [three Anglican and two Catholic] operated for more than 50 years.
All of the buildings were demolished and much of the debris buried on the island, which will make the radar search more complex, officials say.
"The island has reclaimed some of these sites and exploring them has been made more difficult as a result," said Chief House.
Officials say the search will be conducted beginning this summer using a technology called LIDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, and generates precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the earth and its surface characteristics.
Elder and survivors will continue to be consulted to help identify priority sites, based on the LIDAR results and eventually ground penetrating radar will be used.
The Cree Nation of Chisasibi has accessed some of the federal funding set aside to help communities where former residential schools are located, but it says that money is limited.
Local officials say they are currently working with the Cree Nation Government to help find some other funding, and that other locations across Canada have partnered with universities to carry out the radar searches.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay operates the Wiichihiiwaauwin (Mental Health Helpline) at 1-833-632-4357. Support is available in Cree 24/7.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.