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Communities In Canada Plan More Scans For Remains Of Indigenous Children

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today is Canada's first ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It commemorates the victims and survivors of indigenous residential schools. In recent months Canada has been rocked by the discovery of more than a thousand unmarked graves on the sites of these schools. Around 150,000 kids were sent to 139 of these institutions beginning in the 19th century. Emma Jacobs reports other communities expect to make more grim discoveries as they carry out searches of their own. And we should note that this story may be disturbing for some listeners.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Since the discovery of the first unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia was announced in May, visitors have left children's shoes and stuffed animals at makeshift memorials around the country. Here at the former Mohawk Institute, a residential school for Indigenous children about an hour and a half outside Toronto, shoes and toys cover the front steps. Eighty-four-year-old Geronimo Henry greets a couple who walk up.

GERONIMO HENRY: How are you guys doing today - good?

CHRIS BUSWA: Pretty good, how are you?

HENRY: Yeah.

JACOBS: Henry offers to answer their questions. He lived here from 1942 to 1953.

HENRY: I spent 11 years in this school. Yeah.

JACOBS: The Mohawk Institute closed in 1970 after operating for more than a century. It was one of the oldest of the residential schools run by churches and the Canadian federal government. The visiting couple say they both have family members who went through the system.

BUSWA: My dad's a survivor.

JACOBS: This is Chris Buswa.

BUSWA: And so was my grandmother. She passed away some years ago. So I just wanted to come and see it, you know, just feel its presence.

JACOBS: Henry has been coming back here every weekend since the discovery in British Columbia. He tells the couple about plans taking shape here to conduct the same type of ground radar search to look for unmarked graves.

HENRY: We want to start right from the school. Do the perimeter of the school.

BUSWA: Right.

HENRY: And then work your way around.

BUSWA: Yeah.

HENRY: Yeah.

JACOBS: Henry doesn't remember kids dying when he lived here, but he remembers disappearances and a lot of runaways.

HENRY: I don't think anybody liked it here. And there was just, like, stories going around or whatever that there's - you know, something's buried over there or it's haunted over there or something. Don't go in there. There's evil spirits, you know, stuff like that.

JANIS MONTURE: I've heard stories over the years of - you know, say, like, I know that that person got sick. They went to the infirmary. They never came out of the infirmary.

JACOBS: Janis Monture is head of the Woodland Cultural Centre, which took over the buildings after the school closed. She says there are records of around 50 student deaths but no complete list.

MONTURE: And there's also recorded pregnancies. What happened to all those babies? So it makes you wonder like, OK, there's a lot of unanswered questions.

JACOBS: Monture started giving tours here when she was 15, but she learned a lot more from survivors who returned to visit, sometimes with their families.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

JACOBS: In the basement, she pauses outside the boiler room.

MONTURE: It is known as a place where a lot of the abuse happened, sexual abuse more because of the noise so they couldn't hear.

JACOBS: Now, she says, ground radar will be used to look for any remains. The land here belongs to the Six Nations of the Grand River, which asked Kimberly Murray to help organize the search.

KIMBERLY MURRAY: I just got a text that our machines are now at the police station. We've picked them up. We purchased them. We are training people on how to operate them.

JACOBS: Murray previously served as executive director of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools. It released a report documenting how the system intended to, quote, "assimilate" Indigenous kids became notorious for neglect and abuse. Between the grounds of the school and the farms where children were sent to work, there are around 500 acres to search, and the equipment doesn't work well in snow and cold.

MURRAY: We're here in Canada, so, you know, the focus right now is where we'll start for the fall right now and what we can accomplish before the winter comes. And over the winter, we will focus on plotting and planning for the spring search.

JACOBS: This is just one of what will likely be many searches across Canada, which are now getting support from the federal government. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond heads the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

MARY ELLEN TURPEL-LAFOND: The technology is something that has validated and corroborated with the testimonies and survivors said.

JACOBS: Turpel-Lafond, who was the first Indigenous judge appointed in Saskatchewan, says those testimonies and existing records on children's deaths plus forensic searches could lead to criminal prosecutions. At the Mohawk Institute, Kimberly Murray says the ground radar scan is the first step.

MURRAY: The decision what to do if we do find potential burials of children around whether to exhume the children's bodies or not is something that the survivors haven't actually had full discussions of yet, nor has the community.

JACOBS: The residential school survivor Geronimo Henry says according to some traditional beliefs, without funeral rites, spirits can't leave here.

HENRY: If we do find unmarked graves here, at least what we can do for them is that we can give them a decent burial.

JACOBS: He says he's glad to meet the visitors leaving tributes for the children who lived here.

HENRY: Makes me feel my time is worth it, you know, coming up here. We're getting through to them.

JACOBS: In terms of, like, people accepting the reality of...

HENRY: Yeah.

JACOBS: ...What happened.

HENRY: Yeah. And they're - hopefully these spirits are feeling what they're feeling. They're in mourning.

JACOBS: Soon, more of Henry's questions about what happened here might be answered. The ground radar search will begin later next month.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Brantford, Ontario.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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