Team investigating Brandon's former residential school for graves turns to elders for clues

A group that began investigating unmarked graves at a Manitoba residential school long before the tragic discovery at a school in Kamloops, B.C., say they're moving forward with the help of others in the community. 

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation's approach could be model to emulate: Arlen Dumas

Rubble is all that remains of the former Brandon Indian Residential School. (Gordon Goldsborough/Manitoba Historical Society )

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

A group that began investigating unmarked graves at a Manitoba residential school long before the tragic discovery at a school in Kamloops, B.C., say they're moving forward with the help of others in the community. 

The team investigating the grounds of the former Brandon residential school are reaching out to First Nations and affected communities to include them.

They're also calling for help, ranging from seeking photographs of the students who attended the Brandon Indian Residential School to focusing their search based on the accounts of elders.

The need for collaboration is key, Darian Kennedy, community liaison for the project, said during a Facebook live-stream with team members. 

If we were to look at this as a puzzle, the Brandon University student said, "elders are here in the middle, the communities are right next to it and we get a bigger sense of the picture." 

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba, which owns the land where the residential school once stood, has partnered with university researchers to identify all children who died at the school while it was in operation from 1895 to 1972. 

Dozens of graves with no names attached

They've identified 104 potential graves in three cemeteries, but only 78 are accountable through historical records, Chief Jennifer Bone said previously in a statement.

The Brandon Indian Residential School Project began their efforts in 2019, but their work gained prominence in the wake of a preliminary survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia that discovered the remains of 215 children.

Remains of more than 100 children believed to be buried near the former Brandon Indian Residential School site

2 years ago
Duration 2:34
A woman whose family members died at a Manitoba residential school as children and are buried in unmarked graves beneath what's now a campground and RV park near Brandon Man., says immediate action should be taken to buy back the land and protect the area.

Kennedy says community partners have come forward in response to the Kamloops tragedy. 

Other First Nations in Manitoba are thinking of conducting their own investigation of residential school sites, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs told the live-stream, adding the work of Sioux Valley's team in exploring forensic methods, coupled with archival research and interviews with survivors, is a model to follow. 

AMC hosted a Facebook broadcast on Friday, which featured Dumas, Kennedy, Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone, forensic anthropologist Emily Holland and Katherine Nichols, who, as a master's student, began investigating the cemeteries and unmarked graves at the school beginning in 2012.

The group's work was slowed by the pandemic, but they're making progress as calls for action intensify following the Kamloops discovery.

This plaque was placed at a cemetery near the Brandon Indian Residential School after the land became a city park. (Submitted by Jennifer Rattray)

Last week, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee visited the site, where a special ceremony was held to honour the (at least) 54 children from northern Manitoba who are buried on the school's grounds.

The Southern Chiefs Organization will visit the site on Monday, National Indigenous Peoples Day, to offer prayers and a pipe ceremony in honour of the children who lost their lives at residential schools. The public event begins at 10 a.m.

Speakers also commended the City of Brandon and Brandon Research and Development Centre for their support of the group's efforts. 

The team is consulting with community members, including with First Nations that may have members buried in these cemeteries.

Two previously known cemeteries are located at the Turtle Crossing Campground on the northwestern outskirts of Brandon and on land owned by the Brandon Research and Development Centre. 

However, a possible third site had been identified, as well as more graves on a portion of school property the First Nation owns.

Elders have focused the search

Discussions with elders and the poring over of archival images have narrowed the search of where these graves may be, "because in Brandon we have over 900 acres and it's a very large area to search and identify and protect," said Nichols, who is currently a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

The team is exploring archeological and forensic surveys, but the search isn't easy, says Holland, a forensic anthropologist.

The ground-penetrating radar used to find the unmarked graves in Kamloops can detect anomalies in the soil, but it cannot confirm a grave's existence unless the soil is peeled away, she says .

She said it's important that First Nations evaluate whether they want to exhume a residential school site in the first place.

"It's also OK to say, 'We want to recognize the space, we want to protect the space, and we don't want to disturb anybody there.' That is a fair and valid option," Holland told the Facebook broadcast.

The chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is hopeful the team's approach to trying to identify unmarked graves will serve as a guide for other First Nations and Indigenous communities to conduct their own investigations for the children who never returned home.

"One of the ultimate goals of this collaborative effort is to provide a framework that can be adopted and applied by Indigenous communities across Canada," Bone said.

The federal government recently allotted $27 million for uncovering unmarked graves. Manitoba hasn't pledged provincial money to the initiative. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at