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Young dancers circle a statue of Queen Victoria, toppled during a rally, outside the provincial legislature in Winnipeg, on July 1, 2021.

SHANNON VANRAES/Reuters

Three decades after stories of sexual abuse at Fort Alexander residential school first made national news, the RCMP in Manitoba say they have been investigating the institution for the past 11 years.

In a Tuesday news release, the Mounties said investigators have sent the results of a large-scale probe of the school to Manitoba’s prosecution service for review and advice on possible criminal charges. The release did not provide details on who is under investigation, how many people are under investigation or what crimes they may be charged with.

While the force doesn’t normally divulge details of continuing investigations, the release said that investigators decided to reveal some information in the public interest, after being contacted by the Winnipeg Free Press about the matter.

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The disclosure marks another development in the country’s long reckoning with the legacy of Indigenous residential schools. Discussion of abuses at the institutions has recently taken on a new intensity, after announcements by several First Nations that they have located hundreds of unmarked graves near former school sites. Some of the graves, the nations have said, may belong to children.

Although news of the RCMP’s investigation suggests the possibility of answers about what happened to children at the Fort Alexander School, it has also raised new questions.

“It is really hard for me to understand from this what has prompted this unusual statement, with so few facts, that doesn’t identify the crime,” Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, said in an interview.

Prof. Turpel-Lafond, a former judge, said that she’s perplexed by the RCMP’s announcement that it has spent such a long time investigating criminal wrongdoing at one residential school.

“From a criminal justice lens, this is just unheard of,” she said.

She said she hoped a special prosecutor would be appointed. She noted that the Manitoba justice system has not always been effective at addressing the concerns of Indigenous peoples. And the RCMP, she said, has struggled with acknowledging systemic racism and discrimination.

Prof. Turpel-Lafond said Canada’s “chaotic legal treatment” of residential schools is a source of continuing trauma for First Nations.

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“It’s like someone needs to get this together and sort this out properly,” she said.

Fort Alexander School operated in what is now Sagkeeng First Nation, roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, from 1905 until 1970. It began to make headlines 20 years after its demise, when Phil Fontaine, a future national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said that he had suffered sexual and psychological humiliation at the hands of an unnamed priest at the school.

RCMP spokesperson Tara Seel declined to answer questions from The Globe and Mail about when the investigation was forwarded to prosecutors and why it took more than a decade.

The news release stated that, starting in 2010, investigators sifted through archives in Ottawa and Winnipeg for student and employee lists, before reaching out to more than 700 people across North America and taking 75 witness and victim statements. More than 80 investigators worked in partnership with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Southern Chiefs’ Organization.

Sagkeeng First Nation could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but the RCMP news release included a statement from Chief Derrick Henderson, who asked that the trauma the community has experienced be respected.

“Violation of the privacy rights of those involved in this investigation will not only cause further trauma to everyone involved, but also potentially compromise this highly sensitive investigation,” he said.

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The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which says it represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota nations and more than 80,000 people in southern Manitoba, issued a statement of support for the investigation.

“We expect it to be a thorough investigation, and at the end, for those guilty of horrendous crimes against children to be brought to justice using the full extent of the law,” SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said in the statement. “We’ve waited more than long enough for these criminals be held fully accountable.”

In 1990, Mr. Fontaine, who was then Manitoba Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, told The Globe about his memories of the Fort Alexander School. “I think what happened to me is what happened to a lot of people,” he said. “It wasn’t just sexual abuse, it was physical and psychological abuse. It was a violation.”

Mr. Fontaine called for an inquiry into the country’s residential school system, a request that would go unheeded until the establishment of the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission almost 20 years later.

During a 2010 commission hearing in Winnipeg, more survivors corroborated Mr. Fontaine’s experience. One man, Patrick Bruyere, said he used to cry himself to sleep at the school.

Muriel Morrisseau testified that she tried to escape the Fort Alexander School on countless occasions. “The experience was often frightening,” she said. “I remember running away again trying to cross the river and it started freezing up, we all got scared, we had to come back again with a tail under our legs.”

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The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website notes the school had problems with runaways. In one case, in 1928, two boys tried to get away by taking a boat and drowned.

Another survivor, Mary Courchene, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she recalled persistent debasement. “This is what we were told every day: ‘You savage,’” she said. “‘Your ancestors are no good.’”

Police have launched several investigations into residential schools, but none have been as prolonged as the Fort Alexander probe.

The British Columbia’s Native Indian Residential School Task Force, an RCMP initiative, lasted from 1994 until 2003 and looked at 15 schools. Investigators identified 180 suspects, a third of whom were deceased, and 330 victims. Criminal charges led to 148 convictions for sexual assault and 11 for physical assault.

The Mounties also spent a total of four years examining historical abuses at the residential schools in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, and in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Between 1992 and 1998, the Ontario Provincial Police interviewed 700 people during an investigation into abuses at the St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. They eventually charged seven people from a pool of 74 suspects.

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