In schoolyards across Canada, little pairs of shoes are neatly lined up, along with an occasional teddy bear. Balloons, stuffed animals, flowers and pint-sized flip-flops adorn the site of the former Brandon Indian Residential School. The heartbreaking discovery earlier this month of 215 children, as young as three years old, buried in unmarked graves outside an Indian Residential School in Kamloops has galvanized Canadians.
This tragedy continues, with Cowessess First Nation declaring as many as 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which also housed children from southern Manitoba.
Indigenous families have carried the knowledge of these deaths with deep pain and sorrow for generations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, released in 2015, identified more than 4,100 children who never returned home to their families, and there are many more still to be found. This atrocious fact is unfathomable.
The TRC identified that many of the children died of disease or accident while attending a residential school, and some died of overwork or abuse. Six years later, the discovery in Kamloops was a "woke" moment for many Canadians — an undeniable stab of consciousness, a grappling with our tarnished and often brutalizing collective history.
On the outskirts of Brandon, 54 children are buried in an old cemetery at what is now the Turtle Crossing Campground, an RV park along the Assiniboine River, southwest of the former Brandon Indian Residential School. Many more children died at this school, which was funded by the government and operated by the Mission Board of the Methodist Church from 1895 to 1972.
These are real children, stolen from parents, extended families and communities who loved them. The ones who never came home were "lost," their deaths unexplained. Today the families have no peace, no gravesites to honour their short lives.
There is a scramble of efforts now to do something. A petition is currently circulating, initiated by well-meaningº and signed by thousands, about Brandon’s RV Campground. It says, in part: "We want the site excavated and these bodies laid to rest properly. The City of Brandon needs to address their history and rectify a memorial for families affected."
While Canadians are issuing these calls in good faith, we urge Canadians to remember that all actions must be led by families first. The TRC’s calls to action explicitly state: "We call upon the parties engaged in the work of documenting, maintaining, commemorating and protecting residential school cemeteries to adopt strategies in accordance with the following principles: i. The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies; ii. Information shall be sought from residential school survivors and other knowledge keepers in the development of such strategies; iii. Aboriginal protocols shall be respected before any potentially invasive technical inspection and investigation of a cemetery site."
Last week, the government of Manitoba joined other provinces and the federal government in committing millions of dollars to search burial sites. Forensic and archival research is underway to identify the children buried at the former Brandon Indian Residential School. On June 4, Simon Fraser University issued a news release outlining its plans to exhume the remains of the Indigenous children and conduct DNA testing.
While the petition, government funding and forensic research may be well intended, the gravesite and final resting place of children must be protected. Years of painstaking archival research has provided us with the names of many of the children who are buried in the old and new cemeteries near the former Brandon school. Most of the children were from northern First Nations in Manitoba. It is of utmost importance that efforts are made to identify and contact the families of these children before any decisions are made, and certainly before excavating and exhuming takes place.
As this careful process unfolds, the city of Brandon should immediately buy back or expropriate the land it sold in 2001 that contains the RV park, and protect the area. This is not a vacation spot. It is a sacred burial site.
Canadians, and especially children, were moved to tears when the reality of those unmarked graves seared our hearts. Now it is the families and communities of those lost children who must lead the healing, and remembering.
A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
Jennifer Moore Rattray’s great aunt and uncle are buried in the old cemetery near the former Brandon Indian Residential School, and a great uncle is buried in the new cemetery. Joëlle Pastora Sala is an attorney with the Public Interest Law Centre of Legal Aid Manitoba who works on law relating to Indigenous people and rights.