Southwestern Manitoba First Nation denied access to unmarked graves

A southwestern Manitoba First Nation’s quest to search for unmarked residential school graves at Turtle Crossing Campground in Brandon, about 215 kilometres west of Winnipeg, has been put on hold after access to the land was denied.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located 260 km west of Winnipeg, was planning to start a radar survey of the ground today, but they were told late last week that the property owner denied access. 

The search for potential graves of children who attended the former Brandon Residential School has faced multiple delays, Chief Jennifer Bone said.

A peaceful protest in response to the move was held at the campground on Sept. 30, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which is a time to remember children who died while being forced to attend church-run and government-funded residential schools, those who survived, and the families and communities still affected by the lasting trauma.

The former Brandon Residential School opened in 1895 and ran until 1972.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation’s Missing Children Project was established by members of the nation more than 10 years ago to identify burial sites at the former Brandon Residential School. 

The nation, which owns the land where the residential school once stood, has partnered with university researchers to identify all children who died at the school. They’ve identified 104 potential graves in three cemeteries, but only 78 are accountable through historical records, Chief Bone said previously in a statement.

“This work is important because we are talking about a sensitive matter … we’re talking about the burial sites of children,” Bone said. 

“We want to rectify, you know, the problems or the history of the residential school and the trauma that it has caused for Indigenous people,” Bone said. “We’re leading the way and we want to ensure that those things are taken care of and dealt with in the most respectful way.”

Sioux Valley has secured funding to do the survey and to put up a fence around the area once boundaries are determined.

However, trying to gain access to the potential site of unmarked graves at Turtle Crossing has been challenging because it is private property.

Searching for unmarked graves

Mark Kovatch and his wife have owned Turtle Crossing since 2007. He said the campground was built over the graves in the late 1960s or 1970s. 

“It’s in the middle of a campground. The city built a campground over top of a grave site … we have to work within realities of if,” Kovatch said. “My wife and I are trying to make a living and we can’t just shut the campground down.” 

Part of the campsite has already been decommissioned for the project and he’s concerned that if another body is found more of the campsite will be shut down. 

However, he’s scheduled to meet with Sioux Valley representatives today and wants to find a better outcome for all parties.

In 2012, the nation began investigating cemeteries for unmarked graves in collaboration with Simon Fraser University PhD candidate and project manager Katherine Nichols. She said after an initial geographical survey, 56 graves were identified at Turtle Crossing Campground in 2018.

“I think there were just concerns from survivors that there were unmarked graves and that the cemetery fence [at a site north of the former Brandon residential school site] wasn’t large enough and that there were just a lot of unknowns,” Nichols said. “At that time, I didn’t even know how many cemeteries there were.”

Since 2019 it’s been known that the cemetery boundaries could not be determined, Nichols said, creating the need for a second survey.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Grand Chief Garrison Settee visited Sioux Valley Dakota Nation to learn more about their work to uncover graves on the property of the former Brandon Indian Residential School. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)

Nichols said the Turtle Crossing cemetery was established when Brandon Residential School opened. 

A geophysical survey was conducted in 2018 confirming the archival research of the cemetery. However, Nichols said it was impossible to delineate the boundaries of the cemetery and more research is needed.

The biggest challenge right now is Turtle Crossing site access, Nichols said.

“The other sites are Sioux Valley Dakota Nation-owned or we have an agreement with Agriculture Canada to have access to continue the surveys and to continue the work that needs to be done to locate the unmarked graves.”

Bone said they want to be cautious and respectful in how the team proceeds with the project to ensure there’s cooperation from all parties.

This can be difficult as there are multiple organizations to work with including the nation, land owners, the City of Brandon, the province and the federal government.

“Our next step is to put us all in one room and have a conversation and clear up any miscommunication that may or may not be there,” Bone said.