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Process beginning for search of possible human remains at Spanish residential schools

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The Nisoonag Partnership representing Serpent River, Sagamok-Anishnawbek and Mississauga First Nation is initiating the process of searching the Spanish residential schools for possible human remains.

Serpent River Chief Brent Bissaillion says the partnership has received nearly $700,000 from the federal government for 2021-2022 in initial funding with a further commitment for 2023-24 to follow while Ontario has committed $900,000 for 2021- 2024.

He stresses the funding is not just for the search itself, but also for the mental wellness and assistance in helping survivors through the process.

Bissaillion adds the work will include establishing protocols for conducting the searches and respectful treatment of possible remains, archival research and assessments of records associated with both institutions and memorializing the journey for survivors.

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The Spanish Residential Schools, one for boys, the other for girls operated from 1913 to 1965 and were run by the Jesuit Fathers, Daughters of the Heart of Mary and the Government of Canada.

The boys and girls at Spanish formed the largest Indian Residential School in Ontario owned by the Catholic Church. Between 1911 and 1945, the boys’ school was named St. Peter Claver from 1913 to 1930, and it was renamed St. Charles Garnier from 1930 to 1958. It was the only Indian Residential school operated by the Jesuits Order in Canada.

Generations of Indigenous children from Manitoba, northern Ontario, and Quebec were relocated to the Spanish Schools, and Oral stories told by Spanish School Survivors include stories about children who disappeared.

Reflecting on funding commitments made by Canada and Ontario to initiate the work, Chief Bob Chiblow, Chief of Mississauga First Nation expressed what it means to him, “I can’t imagine the void created for so many families and communities during this time, I hope this project can provide some closure and comfort to all affected families.”

He adds, “we will be guided and sustained by our culture and customs. Many ceremonies have already taken place on the ground, and many more will occur. We also recognize that this journey will cause much pain as stories long pushed away return to the surface. We will establish several mental health supports for our families so they may undertake this journey safely with cultural, spiritual, customary, and religious supports.”

Sagamok-Anishnawbek Chief Alan Ozawanimke shared his experience from the ceremony with the children.

“They had stated our Truth loud and clear to the world at a time when it was sitting idle. Their ultimate sacrifice was the result of the attempt to take away our customs, traditions, language and ceremonies to separate us from our Spirit. It never happened.”

He further states that those responsible must accept that responsibility; It is also our responsibility as descendants to honour the Spirits of the children to pick up and learn what was intended to be taken away from us. We must honour their ultimate sacrifice.

“Ontario is honoured to be supporting the Nisoonag Partnership with burial investigations at the former Spanish Residential Schools. The atrocities that took place at these schools inflicted immeasurable and ongoing trauma and suffering on generations of families from Serpent River First Nation, Sagamok First Nation and Mississauga First Nation. Our government is also investing in culturally appropriate, trauma-informed supports for affected Survivors and families as this critical, painful work is undertaken,” emphasizes Greg Rickford Ontario Minister of Indigenous Affairs.

“Our hearts go out to Serpent River, Sagamok, and Mississauga First Nations – as well as all the other communities – who had children sent to the Spanish Residential Schools, as they plan these crucial efforts to locate and commemorate them. We will keep addressing past wrongs and the ongoing painful legacy of Residential Schools, as the communities work towards finding the truth, healing and closure,” adds Marc Miller, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.


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