'A cemetery should never be sold': Calls mounting for Brandon to buy back residential school cemetery, which is currently a campground

A First Nation community in Manitoba says an investigation has identified more than 100 potential graves at three previously identified cemeteries connected to a former residential school in Brandon, Man.

While the discovery in the western Manitoba city is not new, conversations about what should happen next have intensified after the remains of 215 children were identified at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Chief Jennifer Bone of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation said the community has been working to research the history of the residential school in Brandon and has identified two—possibly three cemeteries—including one on land now owned by a private campground.

“Our investigation has identified 104 potential graves in all three cemeteries and that only 78 are accountable through cemetery and burial records,” Bone said in a video statement posted to YouTube.

One of the cemeteries is on the campground land located in an area near the Assiniboine River west of a busy street in Brandon. It’s believed 54 children who attended the nearby, but now demolished former residential school, are buried there in unmarked graves.

Turtle Crossing Campground in Brandon owns land where one of the former Brandon residential school cemeteries is located. (Source: Josh Crabb/CTV News)

According to Sioux Valley, the campground land is not the only area where children from various First Nations are now buried after being forced from their homes, brought to the school where it’s believed some died in farming accidents, from sickness or for reasons unknown.

Bone said another cemetery is on land owned by the Brandon Research Centre and a possible third site is on a portion of school property the First Nation now owns.

“Work is moving forward to identify affected communities with children that may be buried in these cemeteries,” said Bone.

Identifying missing children and burial information are part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

The previously identified burial site on land now owned by the campground was once owned by the City of Brandon and was previously a city park before it was sold. It’s now owned by Turtle Crossing Campground.

A tribute, containing balloons, stuffed animals, flowers and children’s footwear, is growing at the site of the former Brandon residential school. (Source: Josh Crabb/CTV News)

A family member of two of the children buried at the site is calling for the city to buy back the land.

Jennifer Moore Rattray said the remains of two of her ancestors—one of her great-uncles and a great-aunt—are located on the site.

“What I’m asking the City of Brandon to do is to make a wrong right, to correct their mistake,” said Rattray. “A cemetery should never be sold.”

“There are RVs that can park literally right beside or on the graves of my ancestors and other children and it is completely unacceptable.”

The nearby residential school which operated from 1895 to 1972 was demolished in 2000.

Rick Chrest, mayor of the City of Brandon, said the city is working with Sioux Valley to make sure the remains of the children buried on the campground land are properly cared for and honoured.

“We are most interested in seeing a dignified resolution and reconciliation for these children but we want to make sure it’s done in keeping with the First Nation’s wishes and cultural practices,” Chrest said.

He said the city has asked there not be any future development or camping on the grave site and that the land owners have been cooperative.

Rattray said the children, including her ancestors, need to be honoured but she said before anything happens the city needs to buy back the land.

“I think that would give the family members time and space to decide what is appropriate in that space,” said Rattray.

In an email to CTV News Tuesday night, the campground’s owner said he’s had extensive meetings on the issue with the province, city and Sioux Valley and that work at the site has been ongoing but has been slowed by the pandemic.

The owner previously told CTV News in 2018 he didn’t know the land contained unmarked graves when he bought it but had no further comment on the issue on Tuesday.