After 70 years of searching, a Cree family finally knows where three of their relatives were buried after they were taken from their first nation in northern Manitoba and forced to attend residential school.
In September, on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Betsy Oniske and her family gave her three late aunties a proper burial. Oniske, 67, carried dirt from where their final resting places — places across the province that were once unknown to her family — and put them in three tiny wooden boxes, each marked with a flower on top.
At her grandmother’s resting place in Pimicikamak, the family dug a small hole, just four feet by four feet wide and two feet deep. They lay the boxes in the hole and offered a prayer. In Oniske’s mind, her aunts were returning home to their mother, where they belong.
“My grandma would have been very, very, very happy,” said Oniske. “My granny always talked about her three daughters who never made it back to their own community in Cross Lake.
“Their bodies never returned … I didn’t know what she was talking about until I got older.”
Oniske says she and her family spent 70 years looking for the burial sites of her three aunts: Betsey, Isobel and Nora Osborne, who were taken away to residential school in the 1930s.
With the help of an archivist, she found their records — but not without roadblocks and reliving a painful history. To this day, Oniske is still trying to mark one of her aunt’s graves an she says the family is far from getting the accountability they seek.
Marking their graves
Oniske said she was asked to find her aunts’ graves 20 years ago by her grandmother, Sarah Jane Osborne, before she passed away — and in 2020, she succeeded.
Her research revealed which cemeteries they were buried in, but not their precise location within the cemeteries. This year, Oniske went on a journey to visit each one of her aunties’ gravesites to find out exactly where their bodies were laid to rest. Out of all three, only one — Nora’s — was marked with a name.
Through searching the Anglican Church archives, they discovered Isobel and Nora were buried in the Mapleton Cemetery of St. Clements Church in St. Andrews, Man.
Oniske discovered Betsey was buried in the Riverside Catholic Cemetery in The Pas.
When she visited The Pas, she asked the Our Lady of The Sacred Heart Cathedral to mark Betsey’s grave.
“The Father … They told us it was in row five, plot 13, and we said there’s nothing there, no name,” she said.
“I said I need the Catholic Church to put a marker on my auntie’s gravesite. So that’s what they did, they put a marker on it,” said Oniske. “They sent me a picture … I was happy with that.”
Oniske says her next step is to mark Isobel’s grave. She was told by a caretaker at the St Clements Church that Isobel’s records exist at the Gilbart Funeral Home in Selkirk and she’ll be writing them a letter to find out exactly where Isobel was buried in the cemetery, she said.
“For Isobel’s grave, there’s still no marker,” said Oniske. “They just showed us where the grave was, but the grave is all grown in.”
Process riddled with barriers
The family started their record search in 2018 when a cousin, William Osborne, asked his friend Anne Lindsay, an archivist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Winnipeg, to help his family.
“I know how hard it is. Even if you’re educated, even if you’re a lawyer, it doesn’t matter. It’s difficult because it’s technical and it’s so hard to go through,” William said.
“A process of permissions … that’s what they call red tape.”
Lindsay, who specializes in records relating to Indigenous people — particularly involving residential schools and Indian hospitals — said a barrier for the family was having poor internet connection in the north.
She helped them navigate filling out forms and other bureaucratic processes in requesting documents.
They pulled records from church archives, school files from Library and Archives Canada and vital statistics from Manitoba. Their request to vital statistics took a month to receive documents, but Lindsay said it can take up to a year.
“A lot of times, being able to go on to the next step requires that you have the information from the previous step and so the delays with the vital statistics records in particular are problematic,” said Lindsay.
They documented their search in an essay for the University of Manitoba called The Three Sisters, written by Lindsay and William.
“It was heartwarming,” Lindsay said. “The outcome in this case was about as good as I’ve ever seen … [For] lots of families, there will be a space they can’t bridge.”
Two sisters sent to hospital and sanitorium
Their research found two of the girls were sent to a hospital and sanitorium after attending residential school.
Nora was discharged from the Norway House Indian Residential School, which was operated by the United Church, at the age of 15 to a mental hospital, for what was described as a “mental breakdown” in her records.
Betsey’s records show that she entered the Cross Lake Indian Residential School in 1939, when she was eight. She was later sent to the Clearwater Lake Sanitorium in the Pas, where she died.
According to their death certificates, all three sisters died of tuberculosis, Lindsay said.
Lindsay says historical research is revealing that in the 1930s and 40s, municipal, provincial and federal hospitals played a greater role in providing health care to children forced to attend residential school than anticipated.
“It makes the search for families that much more complicated because now we have a whole other layer of potential places that somebody could end up in and a whole different kind of health records bureaucracy that they have to be able to navigate,” she said.
‘Small start’ to healing
On Sept. 30, at the ceremony to honour their aunties, William said he saw eagles whistling in the sky.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “We didn’t use the shovel to cover the graves. We used our hands … I asked them to cover it up with their bare hands,” he said.
“To have a proper burial for them, to bring them back to us,” said Oniske.
“It was just very emotional … some of my cousins, they were happy and crying. To be the strongest, I didn’t want to cry. I cried later on,” she said.
“We have a long way to go in terms of healing,” said William. “But this is a small start.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.