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Jan23MonForensic anthropologist Katherine Nichols uncovers the hidden history of the Indian Residential School in Brandon, Man. January 23, 2017 by Kristin Ostensen
Growing up in Brandon, Man., Katherine Nichols took the bus past the town's former Indian Residential School every day on the way to school, having no idea what it was or what had transpired there.
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The last remnants of the school were torn down in 2000, leaving behind an empty lot. The school's painful legacy, however, is not so easily erased. And thanks to Nichols, now a forensic anthropologist, some of that legacy is coming to light.
Years later, as a university student, Nichols returned to the site to conduct research on the children who had died and were buried there. Through various techniques she discovered that the whispers and rumours she had heard about abandoned cemeteries and unmarked graves were true: buried on the grounds of that residential school are dozens of Indigenous children, still waiting to rest in peace.
A Dark History
Nichols first became interested in researching the Brandon residential school during her undergraduate studies, through a combination of courses on forensics and First Nations history.
“One of my professors asked the class to do a project on mass graves,” she says. “People presented on places like Bosnia, but I thought, 'We have unmarked graves at residential school cemeteries—maybe we should start looking in our own backyard.' ”
That project led to her master's research at the University of Manitoba, which continues today in her PhD studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
The Indian Residential School (IRS) system has a long and dark history in Canada. While some small church-run boarding schools were in operation before Confederation, the system took hold in the 1880s when the federal government established three large residential schools in western Canada. At the program's peak, 130 residential schools received support from the federal government. While the Brandon school closed in 1972, the last residential school did not close until 1996. In total, at least 150,000 Indigenous children attended these schools, where many suffered terrible abuse.
In 2008, the federal government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate and inform all Canadians about what happened at the Indian residential schools, and to help guide Indigenous people and Canadians toward reconciliation and renewed relationships.
The TRC's six-volume final report, of which one volume was dedicated to missing children and unmarked burials, was released in June 2015.
That report puts the number of confirmed deaths at 3,200, but further investigations since the report's release suggest the true number is at least 4,000.
“Reporting protocols weren't standardized,” Nichols explains. “Normally, when a death occurs in Canada, it's reported to the province and registered with vital statistics. But with the residential schools, that just didn't happen.”
While deaths at the schools may have been reported by the churches through correspondence with the federal government, official forms were not in use until the 1940s. Even still, good information can be hard to come by. “While those forms might exist, I can't always find them,” Nichols notes.
In most cases, the schools did not send the bodies of students who died there back to their home communities.
Poor record-keeping and destroyed files make it difficult to determine exact numbers and identify victims. For almost one-third (32 percent) of deaths confirmed by the TRC, the government and the schools did not record the name of the student who died; for 23 percent, there is no record of gender; and for nearly half, no cause of death was reported.
In most cases, the schools did not send the bodies of students who died there back to their home communities.
“That's something we take for granted, like a basic human right, that we can have our dead returned home,” says Nichols. “But for so many northern communities in Manitoba, their children didn't come home. They were buried at the school, and now we don't even know which plot they were buried in.”
During its 77 years in operation, the Brandon residential school dealt with health problems that existed throughout the IRS system. Nichols' research revealed the school was often overcrowded and underfunded. Malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, violence and abuse, overwork, accidents and airborne diseases such as measles and the flu all contributed to student deaths at the school. A 1935 United Church report, for example, showed that four out of five children entering the Brandon school had “some evidence of TB—either active or quiescent.”
In its report, the TRC notes that most of the cemeteries it documented “were abandoned, disused and vulnerable to accidental disturbance”—an apt description of the situation in Brandon.
Through her research—which involved reviewing archives, conducting field work and interviewing survivors—Nichols was able to identify four burial sites on the grounds of the school. Only two of the sites are recognized as cemeteries.
In use from approximately 1895 to 1912, the Assiniboine River Burial Ground is the oldest cemetery at the school. Today, however, the site is part of a private campground and is recognized as a memorial garden with a plaque, rather than a cemetery.
“In the 1930s, the city did a site clean-up to prepare the area for a park, and they removed all the headstones,” Nichols explains. “And in the 1960s, they levelled the whole place and put picnic tables on top of the cemetery. I think they wanted to forget that the graves were there.”
Nichols was denied access to the site for field work, but through archival research, she was able to determine that 51 students are likely buried there.
The North Hill Burial Ground, the other recognized cemetery, has a cairn identifying 11 students and the dates of their deaths. But because of her archival research, Nichols expected the number to be higher.
With this site, Nichols was able to do field work using two non-invasive technologies: ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic ground conductivity (EM38). “Ground-penetrating radar is like a metal detector,” she explains. “It releases radio waves to detect disturbances in the soil, so when you push the equipment across a surface, you'll see what looks like little mountains, which show that there's something unique in that location, that's different from the surrounding soil. Similarly, EM38 uses electromagnetic fields to pick up these anomalies.”
Within the chain-link fence marking the cemetery, Nichols found 17 depressions, 10 of which were marked with wooden crosses. Outside the fence, she found eight more depressions. Taken with archival records and data from the radar and EM38, Nichols estimates that 24 to 26 individuals are buried there.
Stories of Survival
The other two burial grounds were not found in the official record, but identified by some of the school's survivors. For Nichols, it was important to interview survivors in person, rather than ask participants to fill out questionnaires. “This would only reinforce the long legacy of research done on Indigenous peoples rather than with and for Indigenous peoples,” she notes. “I wanted to do things differently.”
Nichols interviewed five survivors. “I'm very honoured and grateful that they trusted me to share their stories,” she says. “I asked them general questions about their experience, and let them tell their story in the ways that they felt comfortable, but I was also interested in what they ate, where they slept, how hard they had to work, what areas they were allowed to go to on the school property, and which ones they weren't. And then from there, I'd ask them, 'Do you remember anyone getting sick? Do you remember what happened to them? Do you know if they went to the hospital, or a sanatorium? Do you remember students who died?'
“I heard stories of incredible strength, great love and resilience,” she notes. “There were other times that I heard stories of sickness, loneliness, hunger, overwork, exhaustion, degradation, physical and sexual abuse—one story of sexual abuse broke my heart and left me with no words, except to say that I was sorry for what had happened.”
From these interviews, Nichols learned that three students had been buried behind the school; none of these graves were marked. The area was so overgrown that Nichols had to conduct a controlled burn of the area just to see the ground and survey it. She found 19 potential grave sites at that location.
A newspaper report quoting another student survivor pointed to a fourth burial site east of the school. Nichols found another three potential graves there. In total, after over 500 hours of field work, she identified more than 70 graves.
Bridging the Gap
After completing her research, Nichols gave a presentation to the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, who now own a portion of the residential school site and, most recently, spoke at their second annual meeting for survivors, which was held last August. The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation has been involved in the project from the outset.
“They had ideas about where they wanted me to look because they had heard stories in the community, so we were able to design the research together,” Nichols says.
Having been a member of The Salvation Army's Brandon Corps and double-majored in religion and anthropology during her undergraduate studies, Nichols believes she is in a unique position to bridge the gap between the church and the Indigenous community.
“I feel like that's my purpose right now—to be a person who goes between the First Nations community and the church, and helps restore those relationships that have been broken,” she says.
Throughout her research, Nichols worked closely with the United Church of Canada, who ran the Brandon residential school, and spent 12 weeks as a summer student in the church's archives. “The Sioux Valley expressed that they were really interested in photos of the children, so when I was in the archives, I located as many photos as I could,” she notes. Nichols then spoke to the United Church about the photos, which led to the church raising funds so that the photos could be scanned and printed for a travelling exhibit.
As a scientist, she strives to maintain neutrality and objectivity, but her research is more than just another project—for Nichols, it's about social justice.
“At the core of it, this is about parents whose children never came home,” she says. “If we can imagine what that would be like—not to see our loved ones ever again and not know where they're buried—it's a grief that's incomprehensible. By doing this work, I tried to facilitate some sense of closure for them, or at least an acknowledgment that their children did go missing and we are trying to find them.”