Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
First Nations leaders are asking the federal and provincial governments for financial support to see a private campground expropriated which they suspect contains unmarked graves.
But the owner of the campground says he believes the remains of children can be respected and memorialized without shutting his business down.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee, Norway House Cree Nation Chief Larson Anderson, and Pimicikamak Cree Nation (PCN) Chief David Monias met with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree on Friday.
The meeting was an opportunity to discuss the “urgent matter” of protecting suspected burial sites of MKO citizens in areas on or near sites of former residential schools, MKO said in a release.
MKO said residents from at least eight northern Manitoba First Nations communities would have attended the former Brandon Indian Residential School, which opened in 1895 and ran until 1972 and was later torn down.
A 2021 investigation conducted by the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and assisted by researchers with Simon Fraser University, Brandon University and the University of Windsor identified more than 100 potential graves at three previously identified cemeteries connected to the residential school in Brandon.
One of those cemeteries, the former Assiniboine River Burial Ground, was located in what is now the Turtle Crossing Campground, a privately owned campground in Brandon. The gravesite is believed to have opened in 1895 and closed in 1912.
MKO says they want the site protected by the provincial and federal governments and said that First Nations should have “custody and control of the children and the site.”
“MKO requested that Canada contribute to the costs of Manitoba taking immediate steps to expropriate the land containing the unmarked burials of children located at the site of the former Indian Residential School pursuant to s. 22(a) of the Manitoba Heritage Resources Act,” MKO said.
On Wednesday, the province’s new NDP government and Premier Wab Kinew will be sworn in and Settee said he is “optimistic that the new Manitoba government will work cooperatively with the Government of Canada along with the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and MKO to ensure this site is preserved and protected by the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.”
“MKO again asserts that, as matters of first principles, immediate steps must always be taken to conclusively protect any and every site where the remains of children are known, or are suspected to be located,” Settee said.
Turtle Crossing Campground owner Mark Kovatch said on Monday he has seen sufficient evidence to conclude that residential school students were buried on his property up until 1912, but he does not want to see the campground land expropriated and instead said he has been working to memorialize those children and protect the areas where the graveyard once stood.
“If the whole campground was shut down it would be a bad thing for the city of Brandon,” Kovatch said.
“This is a beautiful place and it’s a popular and well-used campground, and it’s one that is affordable so that people with lower incomes can afford to come to this park.”
Kovatch said he understands the significance of the former cemetery and what could be buried under the ground on the campground and said that in recent years the suspected gravesite area has been fenced off and he’s been seeking support to build a memorial.
But he said some First Nations leaders aren’t willing to work with him on a memorial.
“I have reached out to First Nations leaders with the hope of cooperation and partnership but they have chosen not to reply,” he said.
Kovatch said he is already working with the city of Brandon on the “next phase” of his plans for a memorial.
“We have the study results, we know where the gravesite is, and my hope is to not only commemorate the lives of the children buried there but to create an ongoing educational opportunity,” Kovatch said.
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.