Southwestern Manitoba First Nation denied access to search for unmarked graves

Southwestern Manitoba First Nation denied access to search for unmarked graves

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation's Missing Children Project team wants to search for graves of children who attended the former Brandon Residential School, but they need access to private property on Turtle Crossing Campground and it's been denied.

A southwestern Manitoba First Nation's second 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, about 260 kilometres west of Winnipeg, planned to start a radar survey of the ground today, but learned late last week that the property owner denied access. 

An initial survey of the site was done in 2018 and a second, larger survey is required to confirm the full size of the burial site, Sioux Valley members said.

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 for 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 First Nation more than 10 years ago to identify burial sites at the former Brandon Residential School. 

The First 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 accounted for through historical records, 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.

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 it," 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 possible burial site is found, more of the campsite will be shut down.

He wants more information about the second survey before granting access.

"It basically was an unlimited search of the property, which would basically shut my campground down, so I said, 'No, I'm sorry, until we have something in place to be able to work with if we find another a body ... how we can work that without having to shut the campground down, then I don't want to proceed any further.'"

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

In 2012, the First 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 grave sites 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.

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

A geophysical survey was conducted in 2018, confirming what was found in the archival research. 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 co-operation from all parties.

This can be difficult as there are multiple organizations to work with, including the First 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.

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.

Chelsea Kemp is a multimedia journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is based in CBC's bureau in Brandon, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback with chelsea.kemp@cbc.ca.