The excavation of possible unmarked graves near a former Manitoba residential school will start over the coming days after an RCMP investigation found no illicit activities occurred on site.
Pine Creek First Nation and Brandon University researchers will excavate 14 anomalies found underneath Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church last year using ground-penetrating radar.
While the community's found 57 additional anomalies at the site around the church and residential school, the initial excavation will focus on the church basement.
Last year, the First Nation requested the RCMP lead an investigation into the matter, given the church resides beside the former Pine Creek Residential School.
Despite countless interviews with community members, surveys and following up on potential leads, investigators did not uncover evidence of criminal activity at the site.
Should the dig uncover anything related to criminal activity, the RCMP will resume their investigation.
The school in Pine Creek, operated by the Roman Catholic Church, remained open from 1890 to 1969 in different buildings on the land, including the church.
Band member Brenda Catcheway, who has been actively involved in the search for unmarked graves, told the CBC that Pine Creek Residential School left behind generational traumas for band members.
"I'm just happy with the stage that we are at and happy that I'm going to be here to complete it," she said, adding that excavations will begin Wednesday and take a month to complete.
If members uncover human remains in the suspected unmarked graves, researchers will use carbon dating, DNA testing, and the school's student registry to identify them.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation records indicated 21 students allegedly died at the Pine Creek school from abuse.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children forcibly attended residential schools in Canada.
Catcheway reminisced about her grandmother and mother, who both attended the day school, with the former worried about sending her to the residential school because of the horrors she faced.
According to the band member, Catcheway said loved ones fought to keep her out of the residential school for as long as possible until she could defend herself.
Another Nation member, Will Charbonneau, also grew up hearing horror stories about the school from his parents, as did his classmates at a nearby school.
"All the front classrooms had a view of the church, so you would be sitting there every day looking at it going, 'There are ghosts in the church,'" he said. "We saw it and heard about it every day. We grew up around it."
Despite sorrow for the trauma his mother and grandparents endured, Charbonneau says their survival empowers him to participate in the excavation.
He told the CBC that it's a difficult journey because each marker is a reminder of children whose stories have been lost.
Emily Holland, a Brandon University forensic anthropologist, said her team of two researchers, student volunteers and locals like Charbonneau speaks to how "sensitive" the entire process is for Pine Creek First Nation.
"The work that we're doing is quite sensitive, and if there are individuals in these reflections [anomalies] and they are, in fact, graves, that's a really difficult thing for the community to consider," she said.
According to Holland, local knowledge will be instrumental in the coming month as they begin excavating the anomalies.
"They know where the residential school was, they know who went…they know all of that about their community."