Southwestern Ont. First Nation investigating grounds of former residential school

·3 min read
Mount Elgin Residential School memorial located in Chippewa of the Thames. (James Chaarani/CBC - image credit)
Mount Elgin Residential School memorial located in Chippewa of the Thames. (James Chaarani/CBC - image credit)

Chippewas of the Thames First Nation is leading an investigation into possible unmarked burial sites at the former Mount Elgin Industrial Residential School outside of London, Ont.

Kelly Riley, director of treaty, lands and environment for First Nation, announced the investigation in a live video ceremony Thursday, filmed in front of the memorial honouring the children forced to attend.

He said that the investigation would "close a chapter."

"I think that might be one of the end goals, you know, in this whole investigation is to reach a point in time, using the best resources available, to put to rest some of the rumours," he said.

United Church of Canada archives
United Church of Canada archives

The first stage of the investigation involves archival research into government records and the churches associated with the residential school. It operated from 1851 to 1946, first by the Wesleyan Methodist Society, and later by the United Church. Riley said this stage is crucial, as there are few survivors of the school.

He said one of the key aims of the investigation is to develop a timeline of events, and identify the names of the students who attended.

The second stage will be "ground truthing," using technology such as drones and ground-penetrating radar to determine if there are remains on the school grounds.

Investigators will also conduct field walks through areas believed to be burial sites.

'A school of a different nature'

In total, 21 different First Nations had children attend the residential school, including Chippewas of the Thames. Riley said the other 20 Nations will be contacted.

The investigation will proceed to a third stage if remains are discovered.

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"I want to assure people that should that occur, that our health department and social services will have resources and people are ready to help," he said.

Riley estimated it will take three to five years to complete the investigation.

"Based on what we have read into and discovered, it may not have been a school in a traditional sort of setting where you go to learn the skills you need to survive in contemporary society," he said.

"One hundred years ago, it might have been a school of a different nature."

Betsy Kechego, the Sundance Chief from the Chippewas of the Thames, said the investigation will bring further attention to a part of history that all Canadians need to know.

"There's quite a few stories from other elders that were in the community that shared that they had witnessed, you know, some incidents where they've seen a child lose their life," Kechego said. "I'm hoping we get [the investigation] done, and there's some kind of reconciliation for the family that their child has finally come home."

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 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.

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