Searches for unmarked graves at the site of a former northern Ontario residential school have uncovered 171 “plausible burials," the Wauzhushk Onigum Nation said Tuesday, with other sites still to be investigated.
Most of them were unmarked, except for five with grave markers, the First Nation said in a news release.
Federal and provincial ministers were expected to meet with the First Nation Tuesday for discussions, including about resources to continue the investigation.
"Both Canada and Ontario have continued to express their commitment to reconciliation, to the truth, and to healing of our communities," Chief Chris Skead said in the release.
"Finding the truth and exercising caution on everything touched by this genocidal legacy comes at a price and it's a price our Treaty partners need to be prepared to pay. That is true reconciliation."
According to records provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 36 children died at the St. Mary's Residential School in Kenora, Ont., the First Nation said.
"Based on conversations with survivors, and their testimonies, the true number is believed to be significantly higher," it said.
Between 1897 and 1972, more than 6,000 Indigenous children attended the Catholic-run institution.
The plausible burials were found during studies conducted by the First Nation's technical, archeological and ground-penetrating-radar team, and informed by testimony from survivors, it said.
The studies were first launched in May as part of a multi-year project intended to locate unmarked graves.
Wauzhushk Onigum Nation is now seeking resources to get greater certainty on the number of plausible graves in the cemetery grounds linked to the former school and to conduct investigations into sites near it.
Additional sites, which are not covered by the current search and include land now privately owned, have been identified by survivor testimony, archeological assessment and archival investigations, the First Nation said.
Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said he communicated his full support to Skead upon hearing of the discovery.
"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," he said in a statement.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and communities and sent to church-run residential schools beginning in the 19th century, a central element of a state-backed policy that amounted to cultural genocide, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
A motion calling on the federal government to recognize residential schools as genocide passed the House of Commons with unanimous consent in October.
The 2021 findings of possible unmarked graves at a former Kamloops, B.C., residential school set off a number of other investigations.
Last week, Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan said ground-penetrating radar had turned up 2,000 areas of interest and a child's bone had been separately found at the site of one of Canada's longest-running residential schools located in that province.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
– By Jordan Omstead in Toronto
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.