Former site of Shubenacadie Residential School scanned for human remains

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Children's shoes on the steps of the church at the Sipekne'katik First Nation. (CBC - image credit)
Children's shoes on the steps of the church at the Sipekne'katik First Nation. (CBC - image credit)

Ground-penetrating radar has been used to search various locations at the Shubenacadie Residential School site in central Nova Scotia as part of investigations similar to those that uncovered the remains of 215 children in Kamloops, B.C.

The Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative shared news Monday of the investigations that have been happening under the guidance of residential school survivor and elder Dorene Bernard.

The group said in a news release that a number of locations at the Shubenacadie site have already been examined. It said no graves or human remains have been found so far.

Last week, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey uncovered the remains in Kamloops. Indigenous communities around the country have been mourning the deaths of the children in B.C. and demanding searches take place at every residential school.

"I sat there and I just cried and said, 'Oh my God, I thought this was going to be over and now this is happening,'" said Lottie May Johnson, a survivor of the Shubenacadie Residential School. "We knew that there were burials but we didn't know where."

Lottie May Johnson was at the Shubenacadie Residential School from 1955 to 1960.
Lottie May Johnson was at the Shubenacadie Residential School from 1955 to 1960.(CBC)

Johnson lit a sacred fire Sunday with a number of other community members in Eskasoni in Cape Breton as a way of honouring the lives of the children in B.C.

It will burn until Wednesday.

"I went in when I was 10 years old. I said I could have been one of these kids, probably. I was choked until I was unconscious by a nun and for a long time I couldn't speak, I was afraid."

Johnson, who spent five years at the school from the ages of 10 to 15, recalls being locked up several times in what she called a dungeon, in addition to being confined in bathrooms and closets.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation lists the names of 16 children who died while attending the Shubenacadie Residential School, which operated from 1929 to 1967. The building was demolished in 1986.

The institution is described on the centre's website as one that suffered from overcrowding, poor maintenance and poor construction.

The Shubenacadie residential school operated from 1929 to 1967.
The Shubenacadie residential school operated from 1929 to 1967.(CBC)

The organization also notes a 1934 federal Inquiry that was held into the flogging of 19 boys at the school. They were permanently scarred. Nobody was held accountable.

Now 76, Johnson has dedicated much of her life to healing and helping other survivors of Canada's residential school system that removed more than 150,000 children from their families.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she was also a part of estimates the actual number of children who died while attending school could be 6,000 or higher.

Flags have been lowered at half mast in buildings around Nova Scotia to remember the children in B.C.

The Catholic church of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha at Sipekne'katik.
The Catholic church of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha at Sipekne'katik.(Shaina Luck/CBC)

A memorial at the Sipekne'katik First Nation, close to the old Shubenacadie school site, is being visited by a number of people.

They've been placing shoes on the steps of the Catholic church of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha to remember the children.

"I fear for a relapse of our people's mental health, they've been through a lot and our community is still feeling the effects of it," said Chief Mike Sack, who is welcoming the idea of comprehensive searches of the old school.

Similar memorials are popping up around the province, including at St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica in Halifax and at Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton.

Sixteen-year-old Jada Paul is the youth chief of the community. She said it has been moving to see the support from so many people bringing shoes to the steps of the local Church of St. Anne.

"It's heartwarming but it's also heartbreaking to see that our people have been through so much," she said.

 Jada Paul at the memorial at the Church of St. Anne in Membertou.
Jada Paul at the memorial at the Church of St. Anne in Membertou.(CBC)

The Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative said in a news release it is now looking at other possible locations to continue its search for remains with ground-penetrating radar, in addition to considering methods that can be used to search nearby Snides Lake.

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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