FASS News, Community, Research

Finding Indigenous Children: The Brandon Indian Residential School Project

June 04, 2021

From SFU News...

Collaborators of the Brandon Residential School Cemeteries Project, led by the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation—including Simon Fraser University, Brandon University, and the University of Windsor—are sharing the sadness of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation.

The preliminary results of an investigation at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has prompted inquiries into the status of cemeteries and unmarked graves at decommissioned Indian residential schools across the country. Those working on the Brandon project say communities and families of missing children across the country are now being reminded of their loss and confronting old unanswered questions. And while their grief is private, they desire resolution.

The Brandon Residential School Cemeteries Project intends to identify the names of children who died at the school while it was in operation from 1895 to 1972. Using forensic methods coupled with archival research and interviews with survivors, the project team will reclaim the identities of children and work with affected communities and families.

“This project is integral in raising awareness and reinforcing public education on the legacy of historical trauma of Indigenous people in Canada,” says Evelyn Pratt, Sioux Valley councilwoman. The SVDN is also continuing to seek ways forward to identify and protect the site’s cemeteries. “The proper and respectful identification leading to the repatriation of the remains of those innocent lives lost will hopefully provide closure and healing for families.”

Investigations first started in 2012

Investigations into the cemeteries and unmarked graves began in 2012, when the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief and Council and landowners of a portion of the school property collaborated with Katherine Nichols, a University of Manitoba master’s student who is now a PhD candidate at SFU. 

The initial research addressed the cultural concerns of the community regarding the space’s future use, and involved archival research, interviews, and non-invasive archaeological and forensic anthropology search techniques including ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electromagnetic ground conductivity (EM38). The research led to many unanswered questions and challenges.

Brandon project funded by federal grant

The Brandon project team received funding in April 2019 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to pursue a collaborative investigation into unmarked graves associated with the Brandon Residential School, but the project has been interrupted by the pandemic. While the impact of COVID-19 has made it difficult to access historical documents and prevented important community gatherings and ceremonies, collaborators plan to reach out to affected communities as soon as it is safe to resume community engagement.

The SSHRC partnership grant will help to further their investigation. Working with project lead SFU professor Eldon Yellowhorn and Nichols are SFU faculty researchers Deanna Reder, Hugo Cardoso and Dongya Yang, University of Windsor professor John Albanese, and Brandon University professor Emily Holland and community liaison/student Darian Kennedy and other research assistants.

“There is hurt and pain in our community today. However, I would like people to know that we are not powerless here. We have put together a world class team of archaeologists, geneticists, physical and forensic anthropologists and archival researchers. Ours team brings together the kind of expertise that is needed to remedy this situation,” says Eldon Yellowhorn, SFU’s founding chair of Indigenous Studies, and Nichols’ PhD supervisor.

“Despite the associated ethical, legal and logistical challenges, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is committed to ensuring that community-led research is grounded in culture, following the guidance of our Elders and is conducted in a holistic and ethical way,” says Chief Jennifer Bone, SVDN. 

Following the wishes and requests of the respective communities involved, the plan is to restore the children’s identity, either through commemoration or repatriation. Ultimately, the collaborators hope their efforts will provide a framework that can be adopted and applied by Indigenous communities, as a guide to initiate and proceed in their own process.

 “Missing children and unmarked graves at residential schools are a forgotten human rights issue in Canada. Investigations at the Brandon Residential School seek to remove the anonymity of children’s deaths and provide answers to affected communities. By acknowledging and acting on important matters of social justice, we begin the work towards reconciliation in my home town,” says Nichols.