Calls for City of Brandon to buy back residential school cemetery land, currently a RV campground

The tragic discovery of the remains of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., is prompting calls for further investigation into other possible residential school burial sites.

On the outskirts of the City of Brandon, there are 54 graves believed to be buried under what is now the Turtle Crossing Campground. The area is along the Assiniboine River just off Grand Valley Road on the northwest side of the city.

The Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation says the graves have been identified through archaeological research, archival documentation, and survivor accounts.

Read more: Canada needs ‘exhaustive’ probe into burial sites at residential schools, UN says

Now, there are renewed calls for the city to buy back the land where the graves are and protect the area. Jennifer Moore Rattray, chief operating officer for the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, has family members buried in the cemetery. She’s been pushing for the city to buy the land back since 2018.

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“Literally, you can park and vacation on the graves on my ancestors,”  Moore Rattray said.

“David Moore was seven years old when he died, he survived three months at Brandon residential school. My Great Aunt Lydia, his older sister, was 13. She survived one year at the school.

Click to play video: 'B.C. First Nation halts search for answers; traditional healing and grieving underway' B.C. First Nation halts search for answers; traditional healing and grieving underway

B.C. First Nation halts search for answers; traditional healing and grieving underway

“So, the fact that they were stolen from their family, the fact that they died as a result of attending residential school, and then, the ultimate indignity is not even in death that they had peace, not even in death that they had rest, because vacationing campers on top of where they’re buried.

“No other community, no other people would be so disregarded but First Nations people. So I have to make this right. My mom has passed. She would be horrified. So for her and for David and for Lydia and all the others, I have to make this right.”

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Read more: Canadian lawyers want Indigenous children burial site investigated as crime against humanity

Moore Rattray wants the city to buy back the portion of the land, while families and the Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation can establish a proper way to preserve the area and honour the lives lost.

“Canada is better than this, Manitoba is better than this, and Brandon is better than this,” she said, noting that the sale of the land was not made under the current administration.

An RV campground now sits on the site where 54 graves believed to be buried. Jordan Pearn/Global News

“I need to see more than words, I need to see action. And what I need to see the City of Brandon do is to recognize that they’ve made a mistake (and) to purchase that piece of land, not all of the land they sold, the piece of the land that the cemetery where they remains are — so that families can have access, so that we can say prayers, so that we can put down tobacco.

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“So that the site is safe and secure and then we can collectively have a little breathing room to decide what happens there – what type of commemoration, what does the space look like, is it a park?

“But we don’t have to make that decision right away, what we do need to do is protect that cemetery and protect those remains.”

‘This needs to be First Nations-led’

Brandon mayor Rick Chrest says the city has been working with the campground owner and the Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation to find a resolution for a number of years. He also says the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed progress. He says the city is looking to take direction from the First Nation.

“The City of Brandon’s point of view on this is we want to take direction from First Nations in keeping with their cultural practices,” Chrest told Global News.

“This needs to be First Nations-led. We’ve had great collaboration with Sioux Valley and I’m quite confident that very soon we’ll have a solution for the most dignified and appropriate reconciliation for these children.”

As for buying back the land, Chrest says it’s not off the table.

Brandon City Hall. Marney Blunt/Global News

“We believe it’s important to be done, in keeping with their cultural practices, the wishes of the families and their home communities,” he said.

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“And then the next steps will take place in terms of purchase, who should own it —should it be the city, should it be the first nation, should it be back in federal hands — some of those issues need to be resolved, and soon.”

Read more: After burial site discovery, B.C. chief calls for space to heal — then systemic change

Chrest says the area was formerly owned by the city and known as Corran Park, and there was previously a memorial area. He says when the city initially sold the land about 20 years ago, there was a stipulation that the burial site remained preserved, but that has since been lost.

“(There was) the stipulation that the burial site be kept intact. (With) some change in ownership and some significant flooding in the area, the markings have not been kept intact so part of this was to re-establish what had been there,” he said, adding the burial area covers approximately three-quarters of an acre.

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Talking to children about residential schools

In a YouTube statement posted early this week, Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation Chief Jennifer Bone said they believe there are 104 possible graves in the area, but only 78 are accounted for through cemetery and burial records.

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“Families and communities whose children were lost while attending these schools have questions that deserve answers,” she said. “The children buried at these sites must have their identities restored and their stories told.

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters.”

Bone said in the statement they have identified another grave site on land currently owned by the Brandon Research Centre, and another is believed to be on First Nations land.

Moore Rattray says further investigation into possible burial sites will help bring some comfort to families who have endured so much trauma.

An orange shirt left at a makeshift memorial at the site. Jordan Pearn/Global News

“Like my family, we know that David died, we know that Lydia died. We don’t know why of how, they just didn’t come home. So for so many families, it’s really traumatizing,” Moore Rattray said.

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“Our strength is incredible. We have survived 500 years of colonization. We have survived 100 years of residential schools. We are resilient, we can get through this ,we will get through this. But it’s a really difficult time, but what will make it easier is knowing where our children are.

Read more: ‘Tip of the iceberg.’ Experts say more burial sites, like at B.C. residential school, could be found

“The City of Brandon needs to recognize that it did the wrong thing and as an act of reconciliation, to purchase that piece of land back,” she added.

“It benefitted financial from the sale of that cemetery with the remains of my loved ones, and it needs to do the right thing. Brandon can do this and then we can all breathe and rest and figure out what happens then. But at least we don’t have to spend our nights and our days worried about campers with folks, families vacationing on our loved ones.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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Chief Rosanne Casimir address Kamloops residential school discovery

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