A small gathering took place Oct. 18 to honour the lives of students who died at the former Elkhorn residential school.
Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Inc. Grand Chief Garrison Settee travelled with elders to host a ceremony at a small gravesite where children from the Elkhorn residential school are buried. The ceremony included music, prayers, a sacred fire, offerings and a feast.
The ceremony was inspired by the memory of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation elder Doris Pratt, said retired Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) educator Rebecca Ross.
Pratt called on Ross to bring a message to MKO and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs requesting a ceremony and feast at the former residential school to honour the children buried at the site and the Brandon Indian Residential School.
“I was persistent to get it done,” Ross said. “Doris wanted to do this. She gave me that message in the summer of 2018, and now only the stories of these burial sites surfaced in May 2021.”
The late elder advised Ross, “there are children from northern Manitoba who are buried in former Elkhorn residential school, and most of these children are from northern Manitoba.”
Pratt, who passed away at age 83 on March 6, 2019, had also expressed that “those children were my friends and my protectors.”
After receiving her call to action from Pratt, Ross began researching residential schools and found lists of children who died in both Elkhorn and Brandon. She added at times the records did not indicate the age, birthdate or date of death. She also found the community a child hailed from and cause of death were also often unknown.
“Some of them, there was not even a record. There was poor record-keeping on the part of the people, the churches, who ran these residential schools,” Ross said. “It’s just hiding the truth.”
Ross said she believes Pratt knew how horrific the legacy of residential schools were in Canada and that it was a piece of history that needed to be acknowledged.
Ross said survivors’ stories from residential schools have been shared for years, and for many decades their experiences went ignored.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website indicates 26 students died at the Elkhorn residential school. The site features unmarked crosses erected in remembrance of the children who died.
The Elkhorn residential school, known as the Washakada Home for Girls and the Kasota Home for Boys, was established in the village of Elkhorn in 1888. It was closed in 1918 but reopened in 1923, under the administration of the Anglican Church’s Missionary Society.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website said the school was eventually closed in 1949 after the leaders of The Pas Indian Band made a number of complaints about the conditions students lived in.
The gravesite where the MKO ceremony took place is home to a monument installed in July 1990 by former school staff and students. In part, the monument reads: “In this consecrated plot of ground lie buried the remains of several children who died while attending the Elkhorn Indian Residential Schools.”
Ross said more needs to be done to address the damaging legacy of residential schools. She wants to see educational institutions start careful discussions about residential schools because the facilities often include students who have family members who are survivors.
“The stories, the history, the truth, should be taught in the schools wherever it’s appropriate,” Ross said.
Residential schools are a major part of Canadian history that needs to be documented, acknowledged and remembered, she said, adding there were 19 schools in Manitoba alone.
Ross said Pratt’s work in preserving the Dakota language is also inspiring, as residential schools served to take children’s culture and language away.
As part of the healing process, she would like to see schools fully funded to teach Indigenous languages and train teachers to help in their preservation. There is a need to ensure those passing on the language to younger generations not only speak the language but are qualified to serve as teachers.
This is an important step because language cannot be separated from culture, Ross said.
A part of addressing these issues in schools is preserving and sharing the stories of survivors.
“Right now, there’s not too many elders, residential school survivors, living, but those who experienced [the schools] have stories. They should be visited and their stories should be recorded,” Ross said.
It is critical to remember the children who died at residential schools, she said, adding every one of them should be honoured, especially because they most likely suffered while living at the institutions.
Ross, her parents and eight siblings went to residential school. She also had aunts and uncles who were taken to the facilities.
The schools took them far away from their families and cultures, and they had no chance to go home.
“A lot of these residential school survivors, they spent anywhere from 10 to 15 years away from home being at the residential school. Some of them were taken away at a very early age, maybe four years old, six years old,” Ross said.
It is a heartbreaking experience knowing children were ripped from their families and cultures to attend residential school, Ross said.
She hopes the chorus of Canadians acknowledging the traumatic legacy of the residential school system that has echoed across the country since the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School will endure.
“I want the acknowledgment to stick. I want wherever residential schools were built on First Nation communities, they should have ceremonies and feasts to honour the children buried on their sites,” Ross said. “Every residential school should be searched, and every residential school should have a monument honouring the children that are buried there.”
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun