Churches must release residential school records of burial grounds: Manitoba advocates

Manitoba First Nations advocates are working to ensure that any children who may have been buried on the sites of former residential schools, including any who are among hundreds of unmarked graves recently discovered in Saskatchewan, are returned home.

First Nations advocates say governments must acknowledge residential schools as 'institutes of genocide'

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's Grand Chief Garrison Settee visited Sioux Valley Dakota Nation to learn more about their work to uncover graves on the property of the former Brandon Indian Residential School. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Manitoba First Nations advocates are working to ensure that any children who may have been buried on the sites of former residential schools, including any who are among hundreds of unmarked graves recently discovered in Saskatchewan, are returned home.

But that process is difficult, in part because First Nations leaders don't have access to historical records from residential schools that name the children taken, where they're from and what happened to them.

"We're in the process of stitching together that story of what exactly really happened," said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels from the Southern Chiefs Organization (SCO).

"I think that these graves and the children that were in, these graves were something that the church wanted to be kept a secret ... and that's what makes it so difficult for us because we don't know where our family members went."

On Thursday, Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation, east of Regina, announced the preliminary discovery of over 600 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Cowessess reported that ground-penetrating radar returned 751 hits at the site.

Ground penetrating radar work began at the start of this month and will be used in the future to help the Cowessess First Nation in locating more unmarked gravesites, Chief Cadmus Delorme said. (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation)

He said the Roman Catholic church, which oversaw the cemetery, may have removed grave markers at some point in the 1960s.

Delorme says children from reserves with Catholic priests in southern Manitoba were often taken to Marievel, while those with United priests from southern Saskatchewan were brought to Birtle Residential School northwest of Brandon, Man. 

"Finally the truth is coming out. Many survivors and their families wanted to share their stories but nobody wanted to listen ... Nobody really grasped the magnitude of the horror," said Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak at a Thursday press conference with SCO.

If churches won't willingly give up the records they have on residential schools, Settee thinks the government should step in.

"Churches should be ordered to give up any documents that will help in this process. I think the churches should not be able to hide anything now," he said.

"We cannot rest until this happens. It must happen."

Settee says families are important resources in this search, too.

"It's families who know where they went, and I think it's important that we start to begin that work," he said.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba, which owns the land where the Brandon Residential School once stood, has partnered with local researchers to identify all children who died at the school while it was in operation from 1895 to 1972. So far they've found 104 graves, and only 78 are accountable through historical records. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives)

First Nations leaders in the province are also looking for unmarked graves on the former sites of Manitoba residential schools they believe will contain the remains of children who never made it home to their families.

Fourteen residential schools have been identified in the province, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.

So far, 104 graves have been found in three cemeteries on the site of the former Brandon Residential School, but advocates believe many more will be uncovered.

'Institutes of genocide': Dumas

The grand chiefs say all government officials must use their voices to ensure family members' bodies are discovered and returned home.

And that won't happen without confronting Canada's horrific truth.

"I think when leaders in the country are denying that this was a genocide, that's a problem for us to move forward," Settee says.

"We shouldn't even call them residential schools, they were institutes of genocide," added Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio.

Neither the federal nor provincial government have taken that step.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas says he's glad to see so many symbols of support for survivors of residential schools and those who didn't make it home. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The Manitoba government announced $2.5 million to help look for graves on Monday, but all three Grand Chiefs want First Nations leadership to control how that money is used.

"You'll need to listen to First Nations leadership and First Nations expertise, and that's the only way forward," Dumas said.

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister agreed that it must be a "true partnership with Indigenous people," but said in a press conference Thursday he wouldn't heed calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations in the province in light of the troubling discoveries this month.

"I don't think denying Canada Day celebrations is a respectful way for us to move forward. I think we should celebrate our country, but we should celebrate it with its warts too," Pallister said.

Overall, Dumas says he's relieved the discovery of the 215 bodies in Kamloops has brought the conversation about residential schools into the light.

"I guess the silver lining for myself is that we're finally actually having honest conversations about it," he said.

"I see the orange shirts all over all over this city and they seem to be growing in number."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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: 1-866-925-4419.