Finding Where the Bodies Are Buried

By Douglas Quan
May 16, 2015

Growing up, Katherine Nichols went past the Brandon Indian Residential School every day in her school bus, but she had no idea what it was. After the school was torn down in 2000, and her parents took her to see the ruins, all she knew was that it was a school for aboriginal children.

It wasn't until she took a first-year Native Studies course at university that she learned about the residential school system - Canadian history's "sad chapter."

And so when choosing a topic for her master's thesis at the University of Manitoba, the budding forensic anthropologist was drawn back to the Brandon school, which operated from 1895 to 1972. She wanted to see if she could unravel its darkest secrets - and document all the students who had died or gone missing and where they were buried.

The small cemetery just north of the school has a cairn listing 11 students, but Nichols had heard whispers in the community about unmarked graves, and how they weren't well-kept. She was certain there were secrets to be revealed.

She would be right. After combing through reams of records in libraries and archives, and surveying swaths of the school's property using ground-penetrating radar and aerial drones, Nichols recently published her findings: she uncovered the names of 70 students who died while attending the school and believes all of them are likely buried in or near the property - mostly in unmarked graves.

"In Western society, it is often assumed that our dead will be brought home," Nichols wrote. "However, almost all of the parents of the children who attended and died at the school were not afforded this basic human right." Vincent Tacan, chief of the South Valley Dakota Nation, which owns the land, said it's good to finally get some certainty about how many bodies are buried there. It goes to show, he said, how the school's administrators seemed to make little effort to return children to their families or bury them properly.

"With the list of names we've managed to get as a result of Katherine's work, it'll be helpful in obtaining closure for some folks," he said. Tacan said his mother attended the school, and often tells the story of a "little Eskimo boy" - not older than three - who was brought to the school and cared for by the female students. One day, the boy, nicknamed "Jimmy Snow," went missing and no one came looking for him.

"This is somebody's young kid," he said. "For all we know, he could still be on the site somewhere."

Nichols' research mirrors the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has spent years compiling stories and records related to the 150,000 aboriginal children who, over a century, were sent to 140 church-run residential schools, where they faced disease, malnutrition, and abuse.

One of the commission's goals was to identify the students who died while attending the government-funded schools - as of last year, there were 4,100 reported cases - and locate where they were buried.

The commission will release its final report within weeks.

Set up in the late 1870s, residential schools were designed to, in the words of one government official, "get rid of the Indian problem" through aggressive assimilation. Students, some of whom were placed in schools against parents' wishes and taken away in large cattle trucks, were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture.

Death and disease, overcrowding and malnourishment were rampant, said Ry Moran, director of the Winnipeg-based National Research

Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which will house all the records collected by the commission. Often, students were buried at their school, but their parents couldn't get to them, he said. "Their parents never had the ability to say goodbye because they may live 600 kilometres away."

Untold numbers also died after being sent away to sanatoriums or hospitals. The lack of systematic recordkeeping of student deaths meant many families did not know where their loved ones were buried.

The Brandon Indian Residential School, run first by the Methodist Church and then the United Church, was no different.

Built near the Assiniboine River next to an experimental farm, the school's location was chosen for its proximity to a settler community, where, in the words of one government official, the white population could "save them from relapsing into ignorance and barbarianism."

Students, brought from as far as Alberta and Quebec, were forced to work in the school's barns, agricultural operations and vegetable gardens. Some girls also worked as domestic servants for the school's principals.

A handful of the school's survivors shared with Nichols stories of physical and sexual abuse. One story "broke my heart and left me with no words, except to say that I was sorry for what had happened," she wrote.

Substandard diets and "appallingly inhumane nutritional experimentation" also contributed to student deaths, Nichols wrote.

Nichols' attempts to retrieve death and burial records or cemetery maps often proved frustrating, however.

Records were either missing or inaccessible or didn't sync up.

In 1905, the Department of Indian Affairs' annual report noted five deaths at the school, while the Methodist Church records showed three. Only nine deaths were registered with the Manitoba Vital Statistics Agency during the school's 77-year run.

Diane Haglund, a retired United Church archivist in Manitoba who served as Nichols' mentor, had encountered the same challenges years ago when a couple from northern Manitoba asked for help finding the remains of their daughter. Haglund worked with a provincial archaeologist to try to help the desperate couple but came up empty.

"For First Nations folks, tracing that genealogy, that ancestry, and knowing where their dead are buried, it's extremely difficult," she said. "You just can't get the record in the way that the rest of us, relatively easily, can."

But the records Nichols did find suggest more students are buried at or near the school than was previously thought.

Correspondence from the school's principal confirmed that the school had operated a cemetery just south of the school, near the river, from 1895 to about 1912. Separate records showed that 51 students died at the school between 1895 and 1911. Thus, it is "very plausible" they were buried at this location, Nichols wrote.

Today, the site is occupied by a private campground. There are no gravestones or markers, just a fenced area containing a small monument with a plaque that reads "Indian Children Burial Ground." Nichols was denied permission to do forensic work on the property because the landowner was under the impression it was only a "memorial garden," not a cemetery.

Nichols had better luck getting access to the school's second cemetery - the one north of the school with the cairn listing 11 names.

Records unearthed by Nichols indicate there may actually be 26 individuals, who died from 1912 to 1957, buried there - not all of them students.








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