Team working to identify residential school graves connects with MKO nations whose children were taken south

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation councillor Michelle Rosmus knows first-hand how emotionally draining the search for unmarked graves at former residential school sites can be.

She is always ready with a hug, because she knows the loss and trauma created by the schools is felt by Indigenous people across Canada. Rosumus says coming together helps people feel like they are not alone in their grief.

“When you talk about Indian residential schools, it’s a topic that is very touchy,” says Rosmus, who holds the Nation’s portfolio for Indian residential schools. 

“No matter where you are, no matter where you’re sitting … when you’re giving a presentation and talking and bringing up these experiences, there are emotions that are felt.”

She and the Sioux Valley Dakota Nations Residential School Missing Children’s Investigation project team were in The Pas, Man., at the end of February speaking to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak nations. During a roundtable, Sioux Valley provided updates on the continued search for unmarked graves at the site of the former Brandon Residential School.

The majority of children at the school were taken from northern Manitoba. In the MKO region, there are eight communities affected by the Brandon Residential School.

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 in the fall 2021. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)

Chief David Monias of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation was part of these conversations.

He says Sioux Valley’s work to find unmarked graves is fuelling an emotional, but healing conversation. The stories shared by the First Nation impact everyone, Monias says, because everyone is connected to the children in unmarked graves and the trauma of residential schools.

“We’re all walking wounded from the experiences of residential school and day school,” Monias said. “You can’t just open up and not be able to deal with it but there has to be some kind of a healing or grieving … every time.”

Rosmus shook his hand and thanked him for sharing his story and his community’s experiences after the roundtable. She says they ended the conversation in an embrace.

“As Indigenous people, whether you’re a Cree, Ojibwe or Dakota, we’re connected when it comes to those emotions … residential schools have done that to us,” Rosmus said. “It’s important that we support one another.”

Battling isolation by building community

Katherine Nichols is the current manager for Sioux Valley’s Residential School Missing Children’s Investigation. The Nation, located about 50 kilometres west of Brandon, began the project more than a decade ago and is working to identify the names of children who died at the Brandon Residential School while it was in operation from 1895 to 1972 in southwestern Manitoba.

The First Nation, which owns the land where the residential school once stood, wants to identify all children who died there. They’ve identified 104 potential graves in three cemeteries, but only 78 are accounted for through historical records.

Pimicikamak chief David Monias (right) spoke during the round table about Sioux Valley’s ongoing search for unmarked graves. (Submitted)

It was critical to connect with MKO, Nichols says, to develop a working relationship that supports families and community survivors. They also want to ensure those who want to participate in the project can.

“We’re trying to focus on building relationships,” Nichols said. “As we gain more information we’ll be able to share that again back to families and communities.”

But the search can be sensitive and the Sioux Valley team wants to be respectful and when working with families, Rosmus says. MKO can help make these difficult conversations easier because of its community connections.

The Brandon Indian Residential School is seen in Brandon, Man., in 1947. Picture taken in 1947. (Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre/Handout)

“You have … waves of emotions when that happens you know, some are searching for their loved ones, yet, some have no answers and some … have found their loved ones right, and have travelled to our community because that’s where their loved one was,” Rosmus said. 

“It was very, very nice to see that closure for them … knowing that where their loved one is laid to rest is definitely heartfelt.”

These feelings of trauma for both survivors and their children can create a feeling of isolation, Monias says. When people see the ongoing work to identify graves, it helps people feel like they are not alone.

Searching for unmarked graves at the former Brandon Residential Schools is a critical search for the truth, he says. The graves need to be identified, so the children and the horrors they faced at residential schools are remembered.

“This thing happened to our people … it can be uncovered,” Monias said. “It needs to be attributed to future generations because … we’re losing a lot of our survivors now and so there has to be a story made.”

Ongoing work of searching

This summer, Sioux Valley plans to conduct non-invasive field surveys using a variety of remote sensing and geophysical equipment to identify additional areas where there may be potential unmarked graves, Nichols said, along with interviews and archival research.

Two women stand in front of a Sioux Valley Dakota Nation sign.
Sioux Valley Dakota Nation chief Jennifer Bone, left, and Missing Children Project manager Katherine Nichols stand in the Sioux Valley Brandon band office on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

There are also gatherings planned to bring families, survivors, elders and youth together to talk about the Brandon Residential School.

“The survivors have always been at the heart of the work that we’re doing … it’s the progression of involving families in the next steps,” Nichols said. “It’s really at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”

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.