Ottawa funding more searches for unmarked graves at former N.S. residential school

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SIPEKNE'KATIK, NOVA SCOTIA — The federal government on Wednesday said it would invest $326,000 to resume ground searches for potential unmarked graves near a former Nova Scotia residential school.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller made the announcement during a visit to the Sipekne’katik First Nation, north of Halifax.

Miller was welcomed by Chief Mike Sack, who voiced frustration over a trauma he said the greater public continues to talk about in the “past tense.”

The history of residential schools in Canada, Sack said, "is not hundreds of years ago. We are still dealing with the effects of it daily and our community has a rough struggle.”

The chief welcomed the funding but said it only addresses the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the amount of healing that still has to happen in Indigenous communities like Sipekne’katik.

“I’m hoping we take bigger steps in the future,” he said.

The federal money is targeted for research, memorialization and search operations on the grounds where the only residential school in Atlantic Canada once stood. Fieldwork on the territory of the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School will analyze areas not included during an earlier investigation by Parks Canada.

The federal funding is also to help with commemorative events such as the installation of a plaque to honour the missing children who attended the residential school.

“Canada has consistently denied the existent scope and pain that has been suffered by communities throughout the country and that is ongoing,” Miller said. “It’s important to mark these events with some humility and understanding.”

Miller said that there are about 70 ongoing grave-recovery projects across the country, adding that Canada has 130 former residential school sites.

“It doesn’t mean one project, one site,” he said. “There are still places where people have not decided whether they should go forward.”

A total of $209.8 million over five years was included in the recent federal budget to help communities document, locate and memorialize burial sites at former residential schools.

Work last June and July at the Shubenacadie site did not find any unmarked graves for students who died while attending the school. A previous search in April and December 2020 was also unsuccessful.

The searches included the use of ground-penetrating radar and aerial laser scanning. The search team found evidence of unmarked graves but concluded they predated the 1930 founding of the residential school by about 100 years and were likely connected to former landowners.

Sack said about 70 per cent of the target area was covered by the search.

“We have a lot more ground search to do,” he said.

Dorene Bernard, a Mi’kmaq elder and residential school survivor, said the funding announced Wednesday will help with healing initiatives for the 70 survivors from Sipekne’katik.

“Survivors want thorough research of the (school) site, including all the surrounding areas, and are hoping that it will locate burial sites that will be protected,” Bernard said.

The only institution of its type in Atlantic Canada, Shubenacadie Indian Residential School was attended by students from all three Maritime provinces and the Restigouche reserve in Quebec. Operated by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Halifax until 1956, the school was closed in 1967 and destroyed in a fire in the 1980s.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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