MONTREAL — The Cree Nation of Chisasibi said Tuesday it will search for unmarked graves at the sites of five residential schools that operated on Fort George Island, in northern Quebec.
The nation said it decided to "seek its lost children" with the use of ground-penetrating radar after extensive consultation with the community, including elders and residential school students and survivors.
"A majority of people said: 'We need to know, let's seek the truth. We know there were questionable activities,'" Chief Daisy House said in an interview.
The five sites are linked to Catholic and Anglican residential schools that were among the largest and longest-operating in the province, closing in 1981 and 1975 respectively.
House said the Fort George schools were the first in the province of Quebec, dating back to the 1930s, and included First Nations children from the local Cree community and children from other nations in Quebec and Ontario.
The Cree Nation of Chisasibi is among several First Nations that have decided to search residential school sites in their territories following news in May 2021 that the remains of as many as 215 children were found using ground-penetrating radar around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
"Everything stems from the announcement from Kamloops," House said, adding that ultimately, the community left it to residential school survivors to decide after discussions as a community.
Work will begin this summer, with experts assessing the island, based on aerial photos from federal and provincial archives and using elders' historical knowledge of where those "questionable activities" took place outside the schools, House said.
The ground search will be difficult given the terrain. The community was relocated from Fort George Island to the mainland in 1979-1980 due to a hydroelectric project. Some buildings were moved while others were demolished and burned, including the residential school buildings.
There are two graveyards that are intact as well as the shell of the former Anglican church. There are also cabins on the island, and the community has an annual gathering there.
"There's a lot of buried debris and a lot of overgrowth as well, so it's a very unique situation because of the circumstances of the relocation," House said. "It's not like in other nations, where they have fields."
Experts suggest at least two to three years of research will need to be done, and some areas will have to be clear cut before the radar can be deployed.
"We'll continue to consult with the survivors and the experts will guide us," House said.
House is also calling on the Catholic and Anglican churches to share their records to ensure the investigation is productive.
The Grand Council of the Crees praised the community for what it called a difficult decision.
"I believe it is the right step forward in addressing long-heard concerns from former students; shining a light on something that has been kept in the dark for way too long, taking another step in the healing journey of our survivors, and seeking truth for what is a difficult part of the Cree Nation’s history," Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2022.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press