A police investigation is underway into potential unmarked graves in a First Nations community in northwestern Manitoba.
It comes after ground anomalies were detected this summer on the site of a former residential school in Pine Creek First Nation.
The RCMP investigation comes after an independent contractor conducted a ground-penetrating radar analysis of several locations.
According to a media release from Chief Derek Nepinak of Minegoziibe Anishinabe, formerly known as Pine Creek First Nation, the ground anomalies were found around the site of the former Pine Creek residential school, underneath Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church.
The Mounties said Friday during a meeting between RCMP and Minegoziibe Anishinabe community members held in August, officers were informed the community was concerned about possible criminality related to the ground anomalies detected beneath the church.
The Pine Creek residential school was run by the Catholic church between 1890 and 1969.
According to records from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, there were 21 child deaths at the school.
Police said they were told elders and community members had additional knowledge and information to share and the August meeting concluded with a formal request for the RCMP to open an investigation.
On Thursday, police attended a feast in Pine Creek to talk about how the investigation will unfold.
Officers said they will be working closely with the community to ensure it’s conducted in a culturally-sensitive way.
Supt. Rob Lasson, officer in charge of Manitoba RCMP Major Crime Services, said as part of the first phase of the investigation officers will be identifying witnesses and beginning interviews using a trauma-informed approach.
“We don’t want to overstep the investigational process so we’re going to start like we do any other investigation and that’s talking to people,” Lasson said in a phone interview with CTV News Winnipeg. “We always want to talk to people and get any perishable evidence that’s out there. And this investigation is very historic so you have to understand that a lot of these people are elderly and we want to make sure they have an opportunity to tell their story.”
Nepinak said in a news release he and councillors have been working under the direction of community leaders to undertake a process to find the historical truth.
He said the community is well aware of the historical role the RCMP played in carrying out mandates by governments including the residential school system but he said it’s important future generations know the truth and what people have survived.
In an emailed statement Archbishop Richard Gagnon said the Archdiocese of Winnipeg has been informed of the ground-penetrating search. Gagnon said he’s aware anomalies have been detected and is awaiting a final report. The archbishop said he wants to cooperate with Pine Creek First Nation and is open to cooperating with any investigation the RCMP wishes to undertake.
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