Sagkeeng First Nation has started the difficult process of checking its grounds for the potential unmarked graves of residential school children.
The Anishinaabe band, 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, invited the Free Press to have a look at the start of its search, which kicked off Tuesday with aerial drones and infrared equipment.
Through a process called hyperspectral imaging, light invisible to the human eye can be used to detect irregularities in the ground, such as where a buried object, a grave, or oil.
Tuesday’s search started with the field where the Fort Alexander residential school operated from 1905 to 1970. The area includes the current band office, just north of St. Alexander Roman Catholic Church.
The First Nation plans to eventually search other sites, such as the banks of the Winnipeg River and around the Fort Maurepas monument, which sits 1.5 km south of its office.
Most residential schools operated out of multiple buildings, such as dormitories and classrooms.
The local school housed children from 21 different communities, and had many documented runaways. Elders believe children were buried near the school building, and bands across Manitoba are waiting for possibly difficult news.
Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson has said his community wants answers as soon as possible, with news of burial sites elsewhere dredging up trauma. Locals have performed ceremonies for days, and smudged the grounds.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found reports of inadequate firefighting equipment while the school was in operation, contaminated water and parents being denied visits.
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."
The school would remain open for another 17 years.