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MKO, Sioux Valley call for government protection of residential school graves

Manitoba Indigenous groups say graves containing the remains of former residential school children in the Brandon area need government protection under the Heritage Resources Act.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) and Sioux Valley Dakota Nation have petitioned both the provincial and federal governments to protect the remains, some of which are located on private land.

Click to play video: 'Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak First Nation leaders call upon province to protect residential school graves'

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak First Nation leaders call upon province to protect residential school graves

Work has been underway for years — despite being put on temporary hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic — to identify the more than 100 potential graves at cemeteries on the site of the former Brandon Indian Residential School, which operated from 1895 to 1972 before being demolished in 2000.

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The site of the former Brandon residential school as seen in 2021. Jordan Pearn / Global News

At a news conference Tuesday, representatives of Sioux Valley, MKO, and other Manitoba First Nations said they are working collectively to urge officials to take action toward reconciliation, rather than simply paying lip service.

Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone said the frustration many families are feeling is made worse by the fact that Manitoba already has legislation — the Heritage Resources Act — that could provide the protection that is being asked for.

“Our request is reasonable,” Bone said.

“We simply ask that the province of Manitoba use existing lands legislation to provide all Manitobans — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — the confidence that the resting places of their departed loved ones will be taken care of and protected forever.”

Since investigations began more than a decade ago, she said, the use of survivor accounts and archival documents, as well as archeological and geophysical technology has led to the identification of two cemeteries as well as a possible third, but negotiations have met with resistance at every turn.

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“We need to create safe spaces for families and communities to make decisions on how to continue to search for and honour their children,” she said.

“It is disheartening to continue to tell these communities about the vulnerable status of their ancestors in this cemetery. We are worried about their well-being, as each delay to protect the cemetery is devastating and brings back a lot of trauma and pain.”

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee. Global News

Bone’s pleas were echoed by MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who said his organization has been involved in the search due to a number of children from MKO communities having attended the Brandon residential school throughout its existence.

“Today, it is unacceptable, inexcusable that the province has not granted protection to these sites. These sites should be protected with dignity and the utmost respect. This has not happened,” he said.

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“The children that lay in these sites are members of our families, members of our nations. And for the province not to act is very disrespectful to the legacy of our people. So today we are here to plead and to ask the government — in total respect — to protect these sites, to protect the sites of our ancestors, our relatives.”

Norway House Cree Nation Coun. David Swanson. Global News

The lack of progress on this issue, said David Swanson, a councillor in the government of Norway House Cree Nation, is concerning for a number of reasons — not least of which being the precedent it sets should other, similar cemeteries be discovered elsewhere in Manitoba.

“We had two residential schools in our community of Norway House and we’re in the process of doing some similar work as what’s going on in Brandon,” he said.

“I think it’s a tragedy in this country of ours that something like this still happens today.

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“Our governments talk a lot about reconciliation, talk a lot about finding the truth… your actions speak louder than words. We’re watching you to see what your actions are.”

Click to play video: 'Manitoba First Nation works to identify 104 potential graves at Brandon residential school'

Manitoba First Nation works to identify 104 potential graves at Brandon residential school

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