Manitoba

Money to find, commemorate unmarked Manitoba burial sites start of 'a long process,' provincial minister says

A gathering outside the former Portage la Prairie Residential School, now a national historic site and museum run by Long Plain First Nation, saw the Manitoba government outline how $2.5 million it pledged last year to help find and commemorate unmarked graves at the sites will be distributed among Indigenous organizations.

Announcement that $2.5M to be shared between Indigenous groups stirs up mixed emotions for some survivors

Residential school survivor Eleanor Elk stands outside the former Portage la Prairie Residential School after the Manitoba government announced money it pledged last year to help find and commemorate unmarked graves at the sites will be given directly to Indigenous organizations. (Travis Golby/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

On the front lawn of a former residential school in Manitoba, survivors stepped up one by one to tell their stories, each in a language the institutions once tried to take from them.

The gathering outside the former Portage la Prairie Residential School, now a national historic site and museum run by Long Plain First Nation, saw the province outline how $2.5 million it pledged last year to help find and commemorate unmarked graves at the sites will be distributed among Indigenous organizations.

But for some, like Eleanor Elk, who was forced to attend residential school from the age of six, the announcement brought mixed emotions.

Discoveries of possible unmarked graves over the past year bolstered support for similar searches of sites across the country, including in Manitoba.

But each discovery also brought back difficult memories for many survivors, Elk said.

"It opened up a lot of hurt," she said, after speaking in Dakota to the crowd of Indigenous leaders, politicians and community members.

"No amount of money, no amount of apologies, 'I'm sorrys', is going to heal anybody."

After a water ceremony in the morning, the afternoon saw political and Indigenous leaders clasp hands in a round dance that included Premier Heather Stefanson and Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson joins hands with Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson in a round dance on Wednesday. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew was among the drum group that played them on.

A new monument capturing the painful legacy of residential schools was also revealed on the grounds.

One hundred and fifty thousand children attended residential schools, one side reads. Many never returned.

A small crowd surrounds a new monument capturing the painful legacy of residential schools that was unveiled Wednesday on the grounds of the former Portage la Prairie Residential School. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Of Manitoba's 18 former residential school sites, First Nations have signaled their intentions to search or have started searching at 11 of them.

To date, those efforts highlight the number of children who died at the schools is much higher than the 338 originally reported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Stefanson said.

Money going to 6 groups

The premier said the province will not dictate how the $2.5 million should be spent.

"We recognize that this work must be Indigenous-led, which is why we are flowing our financial investment directly to key Indigenous governments and organizations to enhance resources, provide community supports and to build structures that prioritize families and survivors," Stefanson said.

How that money was split up was decided by a council of First Nations, Inuit and Red River Métis leaders, Lagimodiere said.

"This is the beginning of a long process that's going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort," he said.

"Once we know the results of the searches, there's a lot more to be done after that," like determining whether any anomalies discovered represent graves, Lagimodiere said.

The bulk of the money pledged — $2 million — will be split equally among the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Southern Chiefs' Organization, the province said in a news release later Wednesday.

The Southern Chiefs' Organization will also hold $200,000 to establish commemorative gathering places and monuments through an organizing subcommittee.

Another $240,000 of the previously announced spending will be split evenly between the Manitoba Métis Federation and Manitoba Inuit Association, the province's release said.

The remaining $60,000 will go to Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, which has been working over the last decade to find children who died while attending the Brandon Residential School.

'Ongoing commitment' needed

Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone said she hopes it's true the money announced in Manitoba is the beginning — not the end — of the province's efforts to support searches like the one her community is conducting.

Bone said the independent First Nation, which is not represented by any other organization, first asked the provincial and federal governments for money for the ongoing investigation into loved ones who never returned home from residential school in 2016. But its requests were denied.

Last year, the federal government also announced $321 million in funding of its own to support burial site searches at former residential schools and to support survivors and their communities.

Bone said investigations like the one at the former Brandon Residential School "require active and sustainable government support to achieve long-term solutions".

It's a sentiment echoed by Ry Moran, an associate university librarian of reconciliation at the University of Victoria who previously worked with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

"This isn't going to be resolved in a matter of months or weeks," Moran said.

"So whatever funding announcements that are being made … need to be framed in a profound, substantial ongoing commitment to support families and nations to recover their loved ones, wherever they may be."

Moran said with many of Canada's former residential schools in the western provinces — including Manitoba — there needs to be a matching level of commitment to support searches in those parts of the country.

"The western provinces are the kind of ground zero for residential schools in many ways," he said.

Provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have pledged between $8 million and $12 million for these efforts. 

But regions like Manitoba and Saskatchewan — which announced $2 million in funding last year — fall much lower, Moran said.

Possible discoveries 'a reality': chief

Long Plain Chief Kyra Wilson said over the years, her community has searched sites in the area, like the nearby gas bar, prior to construction to make sure nothing was buried there. 

She said the financial support from the province will help them also now search the grounds of the school where Wednesday's event was held. 

Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson says her community has searched sites in the area, like the nearby gas bar, prior to construction to make sure nothing was buried there. She says the financial support from the province will help them also now search the grounds of the nearby former residential school where Wednesday's event was held. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

And while she hopes to begin that effort this year, it will depend on how long certain parts of the process will take, like consulting with other communities that had children forced to attend the Portage la Prairie institution.

"It's going to be a process that's going to take a lot of healing and ceremony and love," Wilson said.

"It is going to open up a lot of hurt within our families, our communities."

Wilson said while she hopes the search doesn't turn up unmarked burial sites of children forced to attend the school, she knows that's a possibility.

"I'm a mother and it's just horrible to think like that. But that's just the reality," she said. "It's a reality for every one of our communities."

Manitoba First Nations receive $2.5M to search for remains at residential schools

4 months ago
Duration 2:03
The Long Plain First Nation and about a dozen other Indigenous communities have received $2.5 million from the federal government to search for and identify student remains at former residential school sites.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-441

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Caitlyn Gowriluk has been writing for CBC Manitoba since 2019. Her work has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, and in 2021 she was part of an award-winning team recognized by the Radio Television Digital News Association for its breaking news coverage of COVID-19 vaccines. Get in touch with her at caitlyn.gowriluk@cbc.ca.

With files from Karen Pauls

now