With the unmarked gravesites of as many as approximately 50 residential school students located at the Turtle Crossing campground property, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation’s leadership wants to repatriate them to marked sites.
“This is part of reconciliation; acknowledge what happened, and hopefully we can move forward on this and repair some of the things that happened,” Chief Vince Tacan said of the property, located at the northwest end of Brandon off Grand Valley Road.
More directly, Coun. Elton Taylor said the effort is about giving these children “the proper burial and respect that they deserve.”
Fresh from a meeting with the City of Brandon on Monday, Taylor said the municipality appeared receptive to assist them in their cause.
“I think we need to go forward and have additional meetings with the city as well as with the owner to see whether a positive outcome can be had,” Taylor said, adding that he’s “always optimistic about these things.”
Turtle Crossing campground co-owner Mark Kovatch said he has seen adequate evidence to conclude that residential school students are likely buried on his property, but that it remains unclear where, exactly, they might be.
A few decades ago, local Girl Guides erected a memorial for the students, but Kovatch doesn’t believe the memorial site is where the bodies are buried.
This memorial was largely destroyed as a result of flood events.
The property’s historic gravesite, called the Assiniboine River Burial Ground, is believed to have opened in 1895 and closed in 1912.
University of Manitoba student Katherine Lyndsay Nichols researched this gravesite and another one located up a hill to the north, in a thesis she submitted in 2015.
Drawing from various and sometimes contradictory reports, she wrote that as many as approximately 50 students died during the years in which the Assiniboine River Burial Ground was in use.
The leading direct causes of death included scarlet fever, pneumonia, and consumption or tuberculosis.
“It is very plausible to suggest that these students were interned in the Assiniboine River Burial Ground,” Nichols wrote, adding that further research efforts would “greatly benefit” from access to this cemetery, including a forensic survey.
This is exactly what appears poised to be finally happening, with the City of Brandon delaying a public hearing process related to a zoning application to expand the campground in order to accommodate an archeological investigation.
Identified by the province as carrying “the potential to impact significant heritage resources,” including that of “a historic cemetery attributed to the Brandon Industrial/Indian Residential School,” the developer has been required to enlist a qualified archeological consultant.
Kovatch said he’s on board to follow whatever process is required of him, and that it would “be good for this to be resolved” for all affected parties.
“Everybody’s trying to take their time and get this right, and so that’s what we’re working toward; we’re really just at the beginning of this,” he said. “Everybody wants the same thing here.”
Owned by the City of Brandon and operated as Curran Park from 1972 to 2001, the property shifted between a couple owners during its first few years in private hands, until Kovatch joined wife Joan in taking it over in 2007.
Although Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is heading the effort to repatriate whatever graves might exist at the Turtle Crossing property, Tacan said that it’s only because they are the closest First Nation to the site.
While Sioux Valley children are believed to have been buried in the cemetery, so, too, are students the school brought in from various other Indigenous communities.
Taylor said that although they’re focusing their efforts on the Turtle Crossing property, this isn’t an isolated incident, with unmarked residential school graveyards throughout the nation requiring similar attention.
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