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Opinion Residential schools: A day of remembrance is not enough for a century of forgetting

The Brandon Residential School is photographed between 1900 and 1906.

Collection of James George Milne/Hillman Brandon History Photo Archive Project

Lorena Sekwan Fontaine is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. Andrew Stobo Sniderman is a visiting researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre. They are writing a book about a small town and a neighbouring reserve in Manitoba.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has decided that there will be a national holiday to remember the legacy of residential schools and honour the resilience of survivors. Perhaps this will do some good in a country that has largely preferred to forget and ignore.

Consider the case of a burial ground near Brandon, Man.

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The Brandon Residential School, demolished in 2000, was a massive brick building atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. The school opened in 1895. At that time, and long afterward, it seemed right to powerful white men in Ottawa to kidnap children from their families, isolate them from their culture and transform them into God-fearing Anglo-Saxons.

The past called this progress. The present calls it cultural genocide.

The architect of residential schools, Duncan Campbell Scott, wrote in 1913 that “it is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” Some education, some benefit.

Mr. Scott maintained that the elevated mortality rate “alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared toward the final solution of our Indian Problem.” (By “final solution” he meant assimilation, although the ambiguity to a modern reader is telling.)

No one knows exactly how many Indigenous children died in residential schools, but the number is in the thousands. They died from disease, malnutrition, neglect. Some froze to death running away in the middle of winter.

Brandon Residential School in the winter of 1910.

United Church of Canada Archives

Carpentry class at the Brandon Residential School, circa 1910.

United Church of Canada Archives

Researcher Katherine Nichols estimates that 51 children died between 1895 and 1911 at the Brandon Residential School, which was an incubator for scarlet fever, pneumonia, tuberculosis and typhoid. These children came from 12 communities in Manitoba. Many children were buried, some with headstones, down the hill near the Assiniboine River.

Burials there stopped once the City of Brandon bought the land to convert it into a public park. The city bulldozed the area and removed the headstones. A massive circular pool was built. No doubt headstones would have dampened family picnics.

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One remarkable man resisted the deliberate amnesia. Alfred Kirkness attended the school until 1908, a year in which five students died, and later watched as “the cemetery was destroyed little by little each year, until one day, I saw picnic tables, benches and barbecue stands, placed over these students’ graves,” he wrote. “It saddened my heart to think the White Society would keep right on tramping over these graves, when they were told of the cemetery, and its location.”

Mr. Kirkness tirelessly lobbied to protect and memorialize the children’s remains. In 1963, he marked the burial ground with white stakes. The Department of Indian Affairs estimated that building a memorial there would cost $2,000, whereas exhumation and relocation would cost four times more.

It seems the government opted for neither, and it was left to Brandon’s Rotary Club and Girl Guides to build a fenced-in memorial in 1967. They unveiled a brass plaque that read: “Indian Children Burial Ground.” The dead were denied the dignity of names. Nearby, a colourful totem pole was installed, even though totem poles had little cultural relevance to Indigenous peoples on the Prairies. Still, thanks largely to Mr. Kirkness’s insistence and persistence, lost children were honoured.

Boys and their instructor are photographed in the carrot patch at the Brandon Residential School in 1902.

T.B. Barner/United Church of Canada Archives

For a time, that is. The city sold the park to a private owner in the early 2000s, and it has changed hands twice since. Today, the site is called Turtle Crossing Campground and owned by Mark Kovatch. As recently as 2004, there was still a fenced area featuring a large cairn with the plaque from 1967.

Today, things look different. The memorial cairn disappeared years ago – due to serious flooding, it seems. In its former resting place, if old maps are any guide, there now sits a parked RV with a satellite dish. There is a new fence to provide the RV with a measure of privacy. The fully serviced lot costs $600 a month during the summer.

It is tempting to seek living villains in this sordid tale, but a full accounting of responsibility is more diffuse, elusive and unsatisfactory. What does meaningful accountability for decades-old misdeeds by the City of Brandon and Indian Affairs look like? As for Mr. Kovatch, he says he bought the property without notice of the history of the burial ground, but supports identifying the remains and establishing a memorial.

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In our recent visit to the campground, we did locate one thing that many thought was lost. We asked Mr. Kovatch whether he ever came across the cairn displaced by flooding. Indeed he had. He pointed a short distance toward the entrance. We walked up to the boulder, hidden in plain sight. There it was, minus its brass plaque, apparently dislodged in a flood.

What was once a solemn memorial for the loss of innocent children is now a big stone at a fork in the road in an RV park, signifying “Turn left,” and perhaps something else.

We will need more than a day of remembrance to overcome a century of forgetting.

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