If you are a residential school survivor, you can contact the 24-hour National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 for support. Indigenous people can also access the Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

Leaders from across northwestern Ontario are coming together to offer their support to community members of Wauzhushk Onigum Nation, after the discovery of 171 potential graves on the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School site.

Yesterday, Chief Chris Skead and the Kaatagoging Survivors Group announced that 171 potential graves were found within cemetery grounds associated with the former school, and only five grave markers were put in place. Their search began in May, and more investigations are being planned for the area.

“I am absolutely heartbroken at the announcement of 171 potential grave sites at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School,” said Ogichidaa Kavanaugh.

“Today, the entirety of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3 mourns with Wauzhushk Onigum, the survivors, and intergenerational survivors of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School.

With this announcement, the first of its kind in Treaty #3, I ask that we all take a moment to reach out and connect with each other so that none of us are alone when hearing this devastating news.

The leadership and the staff of Grand Council Treaty #3 consider this to be some of the most difficult work they have undertaken and will continue to stand alongside Wauzhushk Onigum on the path to truth and healing,” says Kavanaugh.

This is the first discovery of unmarked grave sites in Ontario.

Originally opening back in 1897, the Rat Portage Boarding School eventually became St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in 1938 and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church near the current Golden Eagle Entertainment Facility site until it closed in 1972.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says their records show at least 36 students passed away while attending the school. Overall, roughly 6,000 children attended St. Mary’s from sixteen Treaty #3 communities, and the death toll is believed to be much higher.

“The City of Kenora extends our heartfelt condolences to the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation community, and all Indigenous communities in our area,” wrote Kenora Mayor Andrew Poirier, in a prepared statement.

“Our thoughts are with all Indigenous people who have been impacted by Canada’s residential schools and its intergenerational impacts, and offer our deepest sympathies to all those affected.

We acknowledge the deep-rooted grief, trauma and loss that has been caused by Canada’s residential schools and other colonial systems and policies that were enacted and supported by all levels of government.

We recognize there is much-needed work to be done to understand the truth, in order for true reconciliation to take place. The City of Kenora remains committed to this learning, listening and healing together.

On behalf of Council, City staff, and the entire community, we offer our humble comforts during this very difficult time,” adds Poirier.

Wauzhushk Onigum received $2.9 million from the provincial and federal governments to identify any potential burial sites in their territory in August 2021.

Ontario is also providing $500,000 in mental health funding, with Indigenous Services Canada committing $70,000 for cultural programming. Chief Chris Skead notes support workers are being made available in the community throughout the week.

“The news from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation is heartbreaking. Today’s discovery, the result of an eight-month investigation, is a tragic first for Ontario,” says Kenora – Rainy River MPP, Minister of Northern Development and Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Greg Rickford.

“As the Member of Provincial Parliament for Kenora Rainy-River and the Ontario Minister of Indigenous Affairs, I join with the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation and all Treaty 3 partners to mourn today’s sad news.

As soon as the findings were released, I communicated with Chief Skead to offer Ontario’s full support. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the community during this difficult time and will continue working with partners to assist with the next phase of this work.

As we continue to uncover the truth of our collective past on the journey toward reconciliation, we will continue to support these investigations and will support healing for Survivors, their families and community members suffering from mental health and addictions due to intergenerational trauma and harms inflicted by the Indian Residential School system,” adds Rickford.

Communities across the country began searching their grounds after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves in BC’s Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in May of 2021 – bringing the dark history of residential schools to light.

Nationally, Canada operated over 150 Indian Residential Schools for over 140 years. The last remaining residential school, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their homes and forced to attend the schools and assimilate into settler culture, which included giving youth new names, haircuts and identification numbers.

In a social media post, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller, said he has spoken to Chief Chris Skead and has offered "Canada’s continued support in light of this deeply troubling finding and difficult time for the community. As a country, we cannot look away from this.”

In memory of St. Mary’s students:

Albert Joseph-Henry
Ambrose Skead
Amos Blackhawk
Antoinette Tap-Pee
Bernadette Strong
Cathline Thomas
Charlie Mechangabo
David Redsky
Elise Indian
Elizabeth Thomas
Jim Flim
John Jack
Joseph Blackhawk
Joseph Netawegabo
Joseph Thomas
Josephine Seymour
Josephine Shebawkwan
Joyce Bluebird
Louis Strong
Mabel Skeid
Margaret Peetawekijick
Mary Strong
Marie Therese Bob
Martha G Sukedjeweskang
Michael Charley Macheegabow
Nancy Keewatin
Norman Robinson
Peter Kapkagesik
Phillip Swain
Robert Thompson
Roderick Keesick
Rosaline Bird
Sarah Jack
Thos Wawanapetungs
Victoria Kelly
William Kennedy