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Mapping the missing: Former residential school sites in Canada and the search for unmarked graves

Walking up to the steps of government buildings, schools and churches over the summer, Canadians sometimes found themselves greeted by dozens of small pairs of shoes.

The shoes were laid out in commemoration of the hundreds of children — brothers, sisters, daughters and sons — whose remains were found on the sites of former residential schools in Canada.

Using ground penetrating radar technology, Indigenous communities across Canada have been leading searches of residential school sites. So far, more than 1,300 suspected graves have been found.

But Indigenous leaders, families and advocates say it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Using data from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Global News has mapped out all the former residential school sites across the country. The map also indicates whether the grounds have been searched for remains or whether there are searches are underway.

Each dot on the map represents a former residential school site. If the dot is red, that means that no known search has ever been conducted on the site for any remains, and that no search is currently underway. If the dot is yellow, that means the search is planned or already underway. If the dot is blue, the search has been completed.

Global News will be updating this map as communities continue to push for investigations of the areas.

Click to play video: 'B.C. First Nation chief on the importance on healing work for survivors and elders of residential schools' B.C. First Nation chief on the importance on healing work for survivors and elders of residential schools
B.C. First Nation chief on the importance on healing work for survivors and elders of residential schools – Aug 10, 2021

As visualized on the map, the majority of former residential school sites haven’t been searched — and no plans of a search have been announced.

The government has pledged to help communities that want to undertake this emotional and painstaking work, too.

In early August, the Canadian government pledged $321 million in new funding for programs to help Indigenous communities search burial sites at former residential school. The money would also go towards supporting survivors and their communities, the government said at the time, and a special interlocutor would be appointed to help with this work.

Residential “schools” were schools in name only, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report. Children were ripped from their homes and placed in these institutions, where they’d be systematically stripped of their culture and, in many cases, subjected to horrific abuses.

More than 38,000 of the children sent to residential schools were subjected to sexual and serious physical abuse, according to the TRC.

Read more: What can Canada do to prosecute residential school crimes? Here’s what we know

While the doors of the last residential school closed in 1996, the impacts continue to be felt in a number of ways — from the internalized shame taught in school and passed down to younger generations, to the ongoing separation of families in the foster care system, according to advocates.

While addressing these ongoing issues is a key part of addressing the wrongs of the residential school system, finding the remains of the children who never came home is also an important source of healing, according to survivors who lost loved ones in residential schools.

Speaking in the House of Commons in 2014, then-NDP MP Romeo Saganash told a story about a small boy who was known as Johnnish. Johnnish was just five years old when he was sent to a residential school.

“He never came back. Apparently, he died the first year he arrived at the residential school,” Saganash said.

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March for Justice: Protesters demand investigation into residential school burials – Jul 31, 2021

The boy was Saganash’s brother. His mother wasn’t told Johnnish had died until two years had passed. And for decades, she didn’t know where he had been put to rest.

“His mom, my mom, for 40 years never knew where Johnnish was buried. It was only by coincidence that one of my sisters happened to be in the area one day, and someone told her, ‘I know where your little brother is buried,'” Saganash said.

Saganash said his sister filmed the site where their brother was buried. She brought the film back to their mother, and their mother finally — after four decades — saw where her baby had been put to rest.

“I saw my mother cry many times, but the day she saw that video—I had never seen her cry that way,” Saganash said.

“That was closure. That is what we call closure.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

Did you go to a residential school or are you organizing or participating in a search at a residential school? If you’d like to speak to a reporter, please contact Global News via the form below.