Campers have for years parked their RVs at the Turtle Crossing campground along the Assiniboine River in Manitoba, without knowing that it’s situated on the site of unmarked graves of more than 50 Indigenous children who died at the Brandon Residential School.
But Anne Lindsay, a researcher and former archivist with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, has spent nearly 10 years looking for and trying to identify the bodies. So far, she has identified children ranging in age from 7 to 16, dating back to the early 1900s.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that more than 3,200 children in total died at residential schools, where more than 150,000 Indigenous children were sent from 1883 to 1998 as part of a program of forced assimilation.
According to the Commission’s report, child abuse was “institutionalized” at residential schools and the entire system represented an attempt at “cultural genocide.”
Among its 94 calls to action was one to determine how -- and how many -- children died at residential schools and to determine where they are buried.
But some say that, so far, all they’ve seen is apathy.
“We hear from residential school survivors who tell you of these things happening, of mass graves existing, and everybody always denies that those stories are true,” said Arlen Dumas, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “Well, here’s one example…there will be more.”
Lindsay found the unmarked graves by using an old, hand drawn map made by a former student of the Brandon Residential School.
Current campground proprietor Mark Kovatch, who is the third owner of Turtle Crossing, told CTV News that he had no idea his property held a burial ground. He said that he is co-operating with the City of Brandon and a local First Nation to uncover the grave site.
“Their preference was to repatriate the bodies up to the site of the old residential school and to try and have a memorial up there,” he said.
Harshly disciplined and poorly nourished, children at residential schools often died from illnesses such as tuberculosis, pneumonia or influenza. But others died from the hard labour they were forced to endure or died by suicide. Twelve children died after the Cross Lake school in Manitoba burned down in 1930.
“They operated equipment, which in the early 1900s was far less safe than farm equipment we know today,” Lindsay said. “They were also just physically run down from the amount of labour they were doing.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report said that “the failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high death rates at residential schools.”
The work of Lindsay and others in trying to identify the thousands of children who died at the schools is a difficult one, in part because governments and churches have not always been forthcoming with relevant documents or have provided documents in poor quality.
Compounding the problem is that school officials routinely failed to report the deaths to authorities, choosing instead to bury the children in unidentified cemeteries on school grounds rather than to send them home to their families. For nearly one-third of the deaths, no effort was made to record the name of the student who died. In even more cases, they did not record the cause of death.
A meeting is scheduled in September to discuss next steps. Dumas hopes that Indigenous families -- long excluded from conversations surrounding the deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools -- will be invited.
With a report from CTV’s Manitoba Bureau Chief Jill Macyshon