Indigenous Manitobans call for empathy about residential schools after remains of 215 children found in B.C.

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

First Nations people in Manitoba are calling for their non-Indigenous neighbours to have empathy about the toll of Indian residential schools after hundreds of children’s remains were found on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, near Kamloops, B.C., announced last week that the remains of 215 children were found in an unmarked burial site on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The remains were located through ground-penetrating radar — survey imaging that uses radar to depict what’s underground.

First Nations people in Manitoba, meanwhile, hope the discovery of the remains leads to better understanding of the residential school system’s lasting impacts.

“I’ve seen some posts on social media [saying], ‘Get over it,'” said Ray Swan, a member of Lake Manitoba First Nation whose mother survived 11 years at Sandy Bay Residential School.

“You can’t get over something like this. This has gone on for generations for us.”

Swan’s mother was taken to the residential school on Sandy Bay First Nation when she was four years old. She had three brothers who were also forced to attend residential schools — one in Sandy Bay, and two were taken to Birtle Indian Residential School in western Manitoba — but none made it home, said Swan.

One day Swan’s mother went to visit her brother Clifford at the infirmary in the Sandy Bay Residential School. The next day, he was gone, said Swan.

“There was never any explanation to any family members on whatever happened to Clifford,” he said.

Swan’s mother, who is fluent again in the Sotho (Ojibwe) language, doesn’t talk about her experience at residential school, though Swan knows she was abused. The family sheltered her from the news about the remains found near Kamloops, he said.

The remains found by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation bring up memories that are not in the distant past, said Swan, a survivor of Indigenous day schools — federal institutions similar to residential schools except students could go home at the end of the day.

“This is hard stuff,” he said. “It’s very heartbreaking.”

Residential day school survivor Ray Swan is comforted by his wife Doreen Bunn on Monday May 31, 2021. They went to the Manitoba Legislature to grieve after hearing news from B.C. that the remains of 215 children were discovered in Kamloops on the site of a former residential school. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

‘It affects all of us’

Residential schools were federally-sponsored institutions designed to assimilate Indigenous children. An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were sent to over 130 residential schools from 1831 to 1996.

There were 14 residential schools in Manitoba recognized by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website.

Generations of Indigenous people have lived with the trauma from being torn from their communities, and some were also abused by the Christian leaders in charge of the institutions. The residential schools were often filled with disease and an estimated 6,000 children died at the institutions — though the records are incomplete.

On Tuesday, Leeann Roulette brought her daughter and son to a memorial for the 215 children set up on the site of the former Portage la Prairie Residential School, a national historic site owned by Long Plain First Nation.

Roulette’s daughter brought a pair of shoes, her son a pair of boots, to lay at the memorial, and she explained to them the significance of what was announced in B.C.

“It affects us all,” said Roulette, a member of Dakota Tipi First Nation who lives in Portage la Prairie.

“It affects me. It affects my kids because I can’t teach them my language. It affects how we grow up, and how I raise my kids now is different from how I was raised and the way my mom was raised.”

Roulette’s mother is a survivor of the Brandon Residential School, where she was emotionally and physically abused. Roulette’s mother has lingering “emotional issues” and now “has to take extra steps to do certain things,” she said.

Leeann Roulette brought some of her children to a memorial set up at the former Portage la Prairie Residential School to teach her kids about why the discovery of the remains of 215 children is significant. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The discovery of the unmarked burial site near Kamloops is shocking, Roulette says, because it’s hundreds of babies and children who never got to have a proper burial place, or go home to their parents.

But she also believes this is not an isolated occurrence.

“There could be some here and we don’t even know,” said Roulette.

“It was really, really well-hidden because it has been [25] years and they’re just being discovered now.”

WATCH: Memorial grows alongside the former Portage la Prairie residential school:

Grieving Manitobans are honouring the suspected 215 children found buried on the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. Memorials were placed in Winnipeg, Selkirk, Dauphin and a former residential school in Portage La Praire. 2:35

Chief hopes for investigation

Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches has family members who survived residential schools and carried their trauma with them. But he hopes Canadians now understand what Indigenous people have been telling them.

“We’re just hopeful that Canadians in general will really understand what happened at these schools because there’s always been that sense that there are unmarked graves,” he said.

“It’s a crime scene and it needs to be investigated.”

Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches wants to see a national effort to find more unmarked burial sites. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The First Nation had conducted some ground-penetrating sonar before undergoing some development near the Portage la Prairie Residential School site. There was a moment where the sonar showed “an anomaly,” or potentially unmarked graves, said Meeches.

The images turned out to be nothing, he said. But Elders and knowledge keepers suspect there might be unmarked graves, and there are stories of children being brought to the countryside to be buried.

“All of these things need to be confirmed. We need to take a look at them and hopefully bring closure to families,” said Meeches.

Among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action are calls for the various levels of government to help find, document and maintain burial sites where children from residential schools are buried, and inform the families whose children were buried there.

Meeches wants to see that national effort come to fruition and give families closure.

Support available for survivors

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.