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No evidence of human remains has been found during the excavation of a Catholic church basement on the site of a former Manitoba residential school.

Chief Derek Nepinak of Minegoziibe Anishinabe shared the results of the four-week excavation in a social media video Friday. He said the outcome takes “nothing away from the difficult truths experienced by our families who attended the residential school in Pine Creek.”

Fourteen anomalies were detected using ground-penetrating radar in the basement of the church on the site of the former Pine Creek Residential School last year. Survivors had spoken about “horror stories” in the basement.

The First Nation, northwest of Winnipeg, hired an archeological team from the University of Brandon to do the excavation earlier this summer. It is the same team that assists police on archeological digs and excavations in the province.

“As a community we were preparing for more than one possible outcome, which meant we would prepare for the worst but hope for the best,” Nepinak said.

Spiritual advisers led a pipe ceremony when the search began and a sacred fire was lit nearby to ensure elders, survivors and intergenerational survivors felt supported. Nepinak said the search should be an example about how to use an Indigenous-led approach that respects survivors.

Nepinak said he is aware the results will feed into a denialist narrative of what happened at residential schools and urged people to continue supporting the search for truth.

“The results of our excavation under the church should not be deemed as conclusive of other ongoing searches and efforts to identify reflections from other community processes including other (ground-penetrating radar) initiatives,” Nepinak said.

Each search is unique and they should not be compared, he added.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

The Pine Creek school was run by the Roman Catholic Church and operated from 1890 to 1969 in different buildings, including the church, on a large plot of land.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a record of 21 child deaths at the school and survivors have long spoken about the abuse there.

The community’s initial search also determined there were 57 additional anomalies found on the grounds around the church and old school site.

Nepinak said the excavation of the church basement is not the end for the First Nation. They will continue to engage with community members to find a path forward.

“This does not mark the end of our truth-finding project.”

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