First Nation to search for unmarked graves at former London-area residential school

·4 min read

A London-area First Nation will begin searching this fall for unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school that operated for nearly a century.

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, southwest of London, announced Thursday the launch of the investigation into possible unmarked burial sites at the former Mount Elgin Industrial Residential School.

"This investigation really is looking at the (children) who are associated at the residential school here at Chippewa," Kelly Riley, director of treaty, lands and environment for Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, said in a live video stream, part of the First Nation's annual Orange Shirt Day event Thursday.

Mount Elgin Industrial Residential School was founded in 1849 and opened in 1850 with 13 students. More than 1,200 children attended the school before it closed in 1946. It later operated as a day school after 1967. At least five children are known to have died at the residential school.

"In total, 21 First Nations had children attend this residential school," Riley said. "The 21 includes Chippewas of the Thames. So we're reaching out to the 20 First Nations in and around Southwestern Ontario that had (children) attend this school."

The investigation will be headed by the local First Nations and take between three and five years to complete. Discussions are also underway to involve professionals from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and pathology.

Starting in the fall, a team will complete drone work to gather aerial footage of "potential locations around the residential school" and field walks in some areas believed to have burials, Riley said.

The investigation will happen in stages, including research and a process known as ground-truthing that uses ground-penetrating radar to scan the grounds of the former residential school, he said.

"Should the research indicate that there are unmarked burial sites associated with the residential school, we'll have access to modern technology to try and determine if there are remains in the ground," Riley said.

The announcement was made on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new national statutory holiday designated by the federal government in response to one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined the residential school system that separated Indigenous children from their families with the aim of assimilating them.

It also comes after a summer during which what's believed to be thousands of unmarked graves were detected with ground-penetrating radar at several former residential school sites in Canada.

"I think it's premature to talk about unmarked burial sites at Chippewas of the Thames. It may be premature, but it's prudent to plan for," Riley said.

Thursday marked the community's fifth annual Orange Shirt Day to honour residential school survivors. The virtual event included drumming performances and presentations of the history behind the former residential school and its monuments.

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Chief Jacqueline French was also in attendance.

"At its peak, Mt. Elgin housed 160 students at a time and was a heartbreaking destination for many Indigenous children who were forced to attend from all across the nation. Thankfully, this institution, which called itself a school, is now closed," French said.

She added: "As we walk this path of truth together, we must acknowledge that genuine healing for our communities can only occur once the issue of the unmarked burial sites has been put to rest."

Thursday, the First Nation kicked off its Save the Barn Campaign, an initiative dedicated to preserving the last standing piece of the former Mount Elgin residential school. Forced into hard work on the school's farm, some children who attended the school left poignant and painful memories of their experiences scrawled on the walls of the barn.

Donations for the campaign can be made directly to the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.

Besides the Mount Elgin school, Southwestern Ontario was also home to the Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford. The government- and church-run residential school operated between 1830 and 1996. More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children attended the 139 confirmed residential schools in Canada.

Crisis support for survivors and others affected by residential schools is available through a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-925-4419.

– The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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