Search for unmarked graves at former Mount Elgin Residential School set for fall

The search for unmarked graves at one of two residential schools in southwestern Ontario will begin this fall.

The Chippewa of the Thames First Nation announced Thursday it will launch a search for unmarked graves at the former Mount Elgin Industrial Residential School in Muncey.

Kelly Riley, director of treaty, lands and environment for the First Nation, said the first step in their investigation will be archival research. The First Nation will examine government and church records associated with the residential school.

“It has been over 80 years since this school was in operation. The First Nations out west, such as Kamloops, the school was still standing, and pretty much everyone knew where the unmarked burial sites were,” Riley said in a video for the First Nation’s annual Orange Shirt Day ceremony. “We have a much more difficult task as there are very few survivors of Mount Elgin Residential School.”

The First Nation hopes to outline a timeline of events at the school and identify the children who attended it. Archeology, anthropology, and pathology professionals are all expected to be involved in the investigation.

The second step is the physical search and will involve drones and ground-penetrating radar.

“Later on in the fall, when the leaves have fallen from the trees, we will be doing some drone work. Getting some aerial footage of some potential locations around the residential school. We will be doing some field walks in some areas, just looking at areas in which we believe there may be burial sites,” said Riley. “We will have access to a full gamut of modern technology to try and determine if there are remains”

Riley estimates the investigation will take between three and five years to complete.

“In total, 21 First Nations had children attend this school,” said Riley. “The 21 includes Chippewas of the Thames. So we are reaching out to the 20 First Nations in and around Southwestern Ontario that had children attend this school.”

Riley is optimistic this investigation will “close a chapter.”

“That might be one of the end goals in this whole investigation to reach a point in time, using the best resources available, to put to rest some of the rumours, some of the history and with some certainty close a chapter in the book of the Mount Elgin Residential School,” said Riley.

Mount Elgin Industrial was one of only two residential schools in southwestern Ontario, the other was the Mohawk Institute near Brantford. Mount Elgin operated between 1851 and 1946. It is believed more than 1,200 children attended the school.

The Chippewa of the Thames First Nation’s Orange Shirt Day ceremony, which also coincided with the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, is a day intended to honour lives lost and survivors of residential schools.

Former students and those affected by Canada’s residential school system in distress can reach out to the national Indian Residential School Crisis Line for emotional and crisis referral services 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

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