WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
A woman whose family members died at a Manitoba residential school as children and are buried in unmarked graves beneath what’s now a campground and RV park near Brandon Man., says immediate action should be taken to buy back the land and protect the area.
“These are children, these are bodies, this is a grave site and nobody cares, and the fact that people are vacationing on the bodies of our ancestors, of children, is shocking,” said Jennifer Rattray
Her great aunt and uncle are buried near what is left of the Brandon Indian residential School.
Rattray is speaking out as a family member, but also works as the Chief Operating Officer for the Southern Chiefs Organization and sits on the board of directors of CBC News.
On Thursday, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia said the remains of 215 children were reported found after a preliminary survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, some as young as three years old.
Research done in 2015 suggested there were children buried along the river near the residential school, and Rattray says research completed in the following years shows the bodies of 54 students are buried at what’s now the Turtle Crossing Campground on the northwestern outskirts of Brandon, along the Assiniboine River, southwest of the former school site.
The school operated from 1895 to 1972 but it’s believed the river burial site was used between 1896 and 1912. The land was taken over by the City of Brandon in the 1920’s and developed into a recreational area and campground in the 1960’s, called Curran park.
The area is now a privately owned campground, sold by the city in 2001.
“The City of Brandon made a mistake, it sold land it should never have sold, it didn’t put safeguards in place and it is the responsibility of the City of Brandon to purchase that piece of land back,” Rattray said.
“And at minimum, return it to a quiet park-like place where people can pay their respects and ideally much more than that,” she said.
Cemetery was supposed to be preserved, mayor says
The city knew about at least one cemetery site at the time it was sold, but according to the city’s mayor, an agreement was made that the new owner would protect that area.
“Part of the requirement of taking over was that that had to be left intact, then the thing changed hands at least once more, possibly twice and somewhere in there… the cairn got moved and the markings got lost,” said Brandon mayor Rick Chrest.
The cemetery, along with the ruins of the residential school, is under the care of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, Chrest said, so the city is letting the First Nation take the lead on what should be done about the discovery of this other cemetery found on privately owned land.
“We’re not going to be the ones to impose a solution on this,” Chrest said.
“We want First Nations to prescribe according to their cultural practices what is going to be the best solution,” he said.
Chrest confirmed archeological work done on the site shows the remains of more than 50 children but said the survey information is not his to release.
The Chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, Jennifer Bone, was not available for an interview Monday, but said the First Nation would be issuing a press release on Tuesday.
Rattray said it’s unfair to put the responsibility onto First Nations to find a solution for a problem they didn’t create.
“We’re left with a mess and we have to clean it up? How are we supposed to clean up this mess”? Who is going to provide us with the fund to purchase that piece of land to make sure that that land is safe and secure?,” she said.
City should buy the land back first, Rattray says
The children buried at the site are believed to be from northern and central Manitoba First Nations, and not from Sioux Valley, Rattray said.
She wants the city to buy the land back immediately and then discuss with the First Nations and any known family members how to proceed.
“I think it’s time to right this wrong and I think the City of Brandon needs to purchase back that land and correct the wrong that it created in the first place,” she said.
Chrest said there are no immediate plans to buy the land back.
“Everybody wants the same thing, we want to make this right and provide the most dignified resolution and reconciliation for these children and their loved ones,” Chrest said.
Chrest said delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic have kept the parties involved from reaching a solution.
He said the land owner has been cooperative and no further development of the land will take place.
Rattray said the delays are inexcusable.
“It has been years now, it was in the newspaper back in 2018, years have passed, we really need to get past the talking stage and we really need to get to the rectifying the situation stage,”
“It’s just so shocking that nobody cares, I just don’t understand it.”
Rattray says she’s disturbed by the idea that people can park and camp on the graves of her ancestors.
When reached by phone, the owner of the campground declined an interview but said no camping is happening at the grave site.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.