After 58 years of searching, a residential school survivor finds her baby brother's grave
Eliza Beardy fulfilled the promise she made to her father, to find her brother Isaias's final resting place
That last time Eliza Beardy saw her baby brother Isaias Harper was in 1955, when she was taken from her home in Garden Hill First Nation to the Norway House Indian Residential School.
"I remember being put onto a plane, it looked like these water bombers, the ones that fly around here," said Beardy.
"I don't remember having seen seats in there … we were all just packed like a bunch of sardines."
The shoreline where the plane took off was once Beardy's playground. She remembers seeing other planes take off from there, and they would disappear on the horizon.
"I used to think that was the end of the Earth, I used to think, I wonder where they're going, where do they go from here?" said Beardy.
Her first memory of the Norway House Residential School was that it looked like a "solid rock." Later on she'd come to understand it as an institution.
Beardy spent her first night at the school sleeping on the floor in the basement, given one small blanket.
The next day, the children were cleaned and their hair was cut off.
"They started taking us into the shower and they cut our hair right up to our ears … all that hair was gone. They cut it off and then they took us into the shower."
Beardy said each child then received a painful scrubbing.
"They really hurt you, they scrubbed us hard. From what I understand … they tried to scrub the Indian out of us."
Years later, Beardy would find out that while she was at the school, her baby brother Isaias Harper died.
"All I remember was being told that my brother had passed away … they said he had been sick and was taken south to get the help of medication," said Beardy.
Isaias ended up at the St. Boniface hospital. The family does not have medical records, but based on the stories shared by families, they suspected he may have been sick with tuberculosis.
"The only thing I remember was hearing from other people that he had been throwing up black stuff," said Beardy.
In the 1900s, First Nations children who became ill and were suspected of having tuberculosis were often treated similarly to children taken to residential schools. They were stripped from their homes and taken to hospitals often hundreds of kilometres away.
"It is absolutely very, very similar to the history of residential schools. The treatment is the same, they were absolutely underfunded institutions," said Mary Jane Logan McCallum, a professor at the University of Winnipeg who has studied Indian hospitals and tuberculosis sanatoriums.
"I do get contacted by citizens of Manitoba who are looking for loved ones who were buried and don't know where … this pattern just keeps coming up and up again."
McCallum says provincial records were poorly kept and are hard to access. It took seven years for her research team to get access to the Manitoba sanatorium board records.
As for the records of the St. Boniface hospital, McCallum says it wasn't run by the sanatorium board, making the records even harder to track down. Those were transferred to the Grey Nuns in Montreal, and are not easily accessible to the public.
Family's search for brother
Beardy's family was never told where her brother was buried. She says her father's dying wish was for her to find her baby brother's grave.
In May, after 58 years of searching, Beardy found her brother's grave at Brookside Cemetery, which is just a short drive from her Winnipeg home.
Her brother was buried in a section of the cemetery meant for children. There's no tombstone, just a marker that reads 215.
"We dug there, it was quite a ways down at first, and there it was … it said 215," said Beardy, recalling the first time she and her brother Frank found the marker, which was covered in grass.
"I started crying and said, 'There you are … all these years we've been looking for you. After 58 years, we found you."
A week after finding her brother's grave, the news came out that 215 children were found in unmarked graves on the former site of the Kamloops residential school.
"I couldn't understand why after finding my brother and then all of a sudden, 215 children found right there. What is the meaning, that number 215?" Why did it have to be 215?" said Beardy, as she wiped away tears.
The number of potential burial sites in Kamloops was later revised down to 200. Even so, the initial coincidence of the number 215 is still raw for Beardy.
"It's like we found 215 children. Little ones. And they never saw their parents."
When First Nations children died in hospitals, their families were often not notified, and their bodies were seldom returned to their communities.
"First Nations people were treated as wards of the state. And in that position, the institution became kind of their parent and could make decisions about them," said McCallum.
McCallum says that as wards of the state, it would have been at the cost of the government to send a body back to their home community, which might have contributed to why so many sick First Nations children never made it back home.
"They must have assumed that all people want to know where their loved ones are buried. But it just didn't occur to them, for whatever reason, to kind of write this down … and provide us with those kinds of records that we'd like to see now."
For Beardy, what comes to mind when she looks at her brother's marker was how hard it must have been on her parents.
"Every time you go and grab that child, put them on a plane, my mom's heart and my dad's heart, a piece of it was torn off," said Beardy.
"Each year they got sicker and sicker, and they died of heart conditions. They were lonely."