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Minegoziibe Anishinabe is set to begin excavating the area underneath the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church. The community has requested the RCMP launch an investigation after it found 14 points of concern underneath the Catholic church in the community last year using ground-penetrating radar.HO/The Canadian Press

A Manitoba First Nation is preparing to excavate a church basement where it detected 14 possible burials last summer, making it one of the first Indigenous communities to proceed with an archeological dig following the scores of high-tech searches for human remains near former residential schools that began in 2021.

Minegoziibe Anishinabe Chief Derek Nepinak said the decision to unearth the basement divided the community, but that a majority of former residential school students, and their families, demanded closer examination of long-standing stories about burials beneath the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church.

The decision has placed them in a unique position. Over the past two years, dozens of communities have embarked on searches of residential school grounds using ground-penetrating radar. Few, and possibly none, have gone ahead with a full excavation to check for the presence of remains. “They are the first ones that I’ve been made aware of,” said Kimberly Murray, the federally appointed Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves. “Everyone will be watching.”

Located about 320 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, Minegoziibe Anishinabe began searching the grounds of the former Pine Creek Residential School shortly after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery of 200 possible graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, 2021.

Last summer, a search party using ground-penetrating radar discovered 71 subterranean “anomalies” consistent with the presence of burials around the Pine Creek grounds. Many of the suspected graves were located within known burial grounds, but 14 of them lay beneath Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, prompting the community to call in the RCMP.

The RCMP said last week that investigators have “not uncovered evidence at this time related to criminal activity specific to reflections detected at the site.” But the Mounties say they have a plan in place should the community-led dig uncover human remains.

The excavation phase began on Monday with a 3-D mapping of the entire site, Mr. Nepinak said. He said archeologists from the University of Brandon are scheduled to begin the delicate work of scraping away layers of earth from the basement’s dirt floor by the end of the week. The dig could take upward of four weeks. A sacred fire will burn throughout the process.

Mr. Nepinak said the location of the 14 anomalies helped the community reach a consensus on digging. “It’s possible that someone was trying to hide something,” he said. “It suggests sinister intent. I think people want to focus on that.”

Many First Nations have hit a crossroads since conducting widespread radar searches near residential schools over the past two years. The technology is precise but inconclusive. Partial or full excavation is required to differentiate human remains from other soil disturbances such as rocks and roots. Several First Nations have decided against digging possible remains for cultural reasons.

“Many are putting up barriers up around the cemetery to mark it and commemorate it, and they’re done,” Ms. Murray said.

Most of the roughly 140 residential schools that operated in Canada took in children from multiple nations. Balancing the search priorities of all the involved First Nations has proven complicated in some cases. When Williams Lake First Nation Kukpi7 (Chief) Willie Sellars expressed openness to exhuming radar reflections discovered around the former St. Joseph’s Mission in B.C.’s Interior earlier this year, the chair of the nearby Tsilhqot’in National Government said he would sue if his communities weren’t consulted first.

Other communities are exploring technology that would test the soil for the presence of human remains without removing any earth.

“When bodies decompose, they release an acid in the soil,” Ms. Murray said. “This technology tests for the presence of the acid.”

One year ago this week, Pope Francis acknowledged the “deplorable evil” of the residential school system and apologized to survivors.

While excavation is an important stage of these searches, Ms. Murray said Canadians shouldn’t need bodies to prove that children died at residential schools.

“We know cemeteries were built on residential school grounds,” she said. “We know death certificates have the name of a child and show they were at residential school. There are photos of burials taking place. There is documented proof.”

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