Sagkeeng First Nation is bracing for difficult revelations, with a ground-penetrating radar search of its former residential school grounds starting Tuesday morning.
"This is going to be a difficult time for our people," Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson told the Free Press.
"But you have to honour those children (and) those families, after what happened."
The Anishinaabe community, 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, spent Sunday in ceremony and started smudging Monday the grounds of the former Fort Alexander residential school.
The First Nation has fundraised to pay a company $20,000 to conduct ground-penetrating radar searches, arriving Monday and starting work early Tuesday, after a briefing from local leadership.
"I think the community wants me to get it done now, today, and be done with it tomorrow. But I said to them last night that this is going to be a long process," Henderson said Monday.
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Elders have long-believed there are unmarked graves on the property, and the band pledged shortly after the revelation of such burial sites in Kamloops, B.C., it would do its own searches.
Henderson said that includes searching grounds around the school and former medical centre, as well as near the former Fort Maurepas trading post and along riverbanks.
The band will then try to identify any found remains, likely with the help of records Catholic Oblates are currently transferring to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
Children who attended the school were taken from 21 communities, some of whom never made it home.
Black River Chief Sheldon Kent said the news from B.C. and elsewhere has dredged up trauma in his community, just 25 km north of Sagkeeng.
"Some are turning to alcohol. They were living sober lives for a number of years, but they're turning to substance abuse to numb the pains again," he said in an interview.
"They're going back to the old ways of blocking, and protecting themselves," said Kent, who took part in a pipe ceremony and water ceremony this past weekend at Sagkeeng.
Black River has mobilized a mental health team, after already seeing people struggle with reports of burial sites in other provinces.
"They weren't prepared, because they probably blocked those harmful memories about the trauma they've experienced, and this retriggered lots," Kent said.
"I pray for them, that when we discover them, they're able to grieve."
Henderson said locals also want accountability if they uncover any evidence of crimes.
Former students recalled corporal punishment and widespread sexual abuse at the school; including former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine in a famous 1990 interview.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found documentation of numerous runaways at the Fort Alexander school, which operated from 1905 to 1970, as well as as inadequate firefighting equipment, contaminated water and parents being denied visits.
When the local high school reached capacity, students were sent back to the residential school for their studies.
A 1953 report recommended the school close, after an inspector found at least 15 centimetres of sewage overflowing in the boiler room and seeping into the boys’ playroom, producing a smell "unbearable and no human being should be asked to live under such circumstances."
A farm used to run on the schoolgrounds, where a closed dormitory was later converted into a garment factory.
Henderson said Sagkeeng band members fundraised to do the search, as both the Trudeau and Pallister governments' funding for such tasks appear to take a long time to access.
"I'm not going to wait for the government to fund what we're doing," he said.