The City of Brandon should buy back the land where unmarked graves from the former Brandon Residential School lie, says a woman who has family members buried at the site.
Jennifer Moore Rattray said the bodies of her great aunt and great uncle, Lydia Moore and David Moar, are buried in unmarked graves on the site now occupied by the Turtle Crossing Campground. Lydia and David were siblings, but their names were spelled differently by the administration of the residential school.
The land near the Assiniboine River, which is believed to have been used as a burial site between 1896 and 1912, was owned by the City of Brandon until 2001, when the city sold it.
"The City of Brandon made a mistake in 2001 when it sold a cemetery," Rattray said, who is also the chief operating officer of the Southern Chiefs Organization.
There are the remains of 54 children buried at the site, she said.
"What really needs to happen is the City of Brandon needs to undo what it did. It needs to correct a wrong and it needs to purchase back the piece of land that is currently the cemetery."
"That at least will then allow access for families who want to pay their respects and until such time as families determine what would be appropriate at that site."
The city buying the piece of land is the only option that protects the graves, Rattray said, and she opposes any plan to exhume or disturb the resting place of her relatives.
After purchasing the site, she said it should be gifted back to the families of those buried there, who can decide how to proceed.
The children sent to the school were from northern and central Manitoba First Nations, so they should be the ones who decide what happens with it. Rattray said no children from Sioux Valley are believed to be buried there.
"This is a mess that the City of Brandon created and that the City of Brandon needs to fix," Rattray said.
Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest said the city is currently in talks with both Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, which has care of the former residential school site, and the owners of Turtle Crossing Campground about the situation.
Talks were ongoing, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the process.
"Everybody wants the same thing. We’re working toward a proper resolution and reconciliation for these children and their loved ones, and then the thing had a temporary hiatus due to COVID," Chrest said.
"The resolve to handle this has not changed, and so while the reaction would be to have us come in there and buy up the property and kind of take over, we’re wanting to be respectful of the wishes of the First Nation."
It’s too early to say what the solution might be, Chrest said, and the City of Brandon wants to handle it in the most respectful way possible. He said he is completely open-minded on the subject.
"We want to see that this is dealt with appropriately and that’s why we offered to get involved in the first place and we’re committed to seeing this through," he said.
The city sold the land, which was known as Curran Park, in 2001 for $130,000. Now, Rattray said the money the city gained from the sale should be to right the historical wrong.
The sale of the land amounts to the erasure of history, Rattray said, and she doubts any other graves would be treated in the same way.
"There’s a complete lack of regard for those lost children, and that needs to change and it needs to change now."
The call for the municipality to buy the land follows the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation Chief Rosanna Casimir described the discovery as an "unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented."
There have so far been two cemeteries related to the residential school located, according to a statement from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief Jennifer Bone — one at Turtle Crossing Campground and the other on land owned by the Brandon Research Centre.
There is a third possible burial ground on a portion of the former school property owned by the First Nation, according to the statement.
Sioux Valley is investigating the site using archaeological survey techniques, geophysical technologies, survivor accounts and archival documents, according to the statement. So far, 104 potential graves have been located in the three cemeteries, but only 78 are accounted for in cemetery burial records.
"Negotiations to find and protect the Brandon Residential School cemeteries has been complicated. The project is ongoing thanks to individual stakeholders coming together to find a solution on our own," Bone said in the statement.
Work is ongoing to identify the affected communities whose children might be buried there.
"We must honour the memory of the children who never made it home by holding the Government of Canada, churches and all responsible parties accountable for their inhumane actions," Bone said.
"There is more work to be done to bring truth to the atrocities afflicted on the children, who were our parents, our grandparents, and great-grandparents, and those children who never became parents, grandparents and great-grandparents."
Premier Brian Pallister said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference the province will support the federal government and Indigenous organizations in work to identify and commemorate burial sites.
On Tuesday, the Brandon Friendship Centre organized a sacred fire to be lit at the Riverbank Discovery Centre. The fire will burn for four days in memory of the children who died at the Kamloops Residential School.
The city also lowered flags to half-mast on Monday.
The national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up for former students and those affected by the schools. The line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.