Looking to help heal lingering wounds from residential schools, Birdtail Sioux First Nation will be hosting a grand opening for its new healing garden in late September.
The Cankaga Otina Wicozani Magah (Birdtail Sioux Healing Garden) is centred on healing and education, said Leah Lazaruk, Birdtail’s director of post-secondary education. The healing garden will create a space to honour residential school survivors and those impacted by intergenerational trauma, she said, while helping foster community healing and connections.
“It’s about coming together. It’s about truth and reconciliation. It’s about starting to walk in right relations with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” Lazaruk said.
Birdtail will be hosting a grand opening for the garden Sept. 23. The day will feature an elder prayer, a presentation from local students, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a speech from Chief Lindsay Bunn Jr.
“Not only is it to commemorate and honour our residential school survivors, but it’s also to come together. It’s about truth and reconciliation,” Lazaruk said. “It’s about starting to walk in right relations with one and other.”
Birdtail was already in the process of building the healing garden when reports of unmarked graves at former residential school sites became national news, she said, reopening traumatic experiences for many nation members.
“This is all happening right at the right time,” Lazaruk said.
One of the major components of the garden is a monument dedicated to Birdtail members forced to attend residential schools. Lazaruk hopes to include the names of any community members who attended schools on the monument.
While many nation members were sent to the nearby Birtle Indian Residential School, others were placed in Brandon, Dauphin, Portage la Prairie or other areas.
A community member has been helping to collect names of survivors, but the historical records documenting those forced to attend the schools are sparse.
The Birtle Residential School ran from the early 1880s to the 1970s under the guidance of the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church has donated the monument featuring the names of survivors to the healing garden.
Through word-of-mouth and speaking with elders, they have been trying to capture the remaining names, she said. They hope to see others provide additional information regarding former students.
“It would be wonderful for them to connect with us so that we could add and try to get as many names as we can on this monument,” Lazaruk said.
Along with the monument, the 225-foot by 100-foot garden includes a pergola, a firepit, medicine wheel, Indigenous plants, a vegetable garden and sculptures of a bison and eagle.
“There’s a lot of different things going on in that garden. The whole idea is at each zone you have a different experience,” Lazaruk said.
Lazaruk’s work on the garden began in 2020 when the project received funding from the Canadian Heritage Funding to Commemorate the History and Legacy of the Residential School program.
Construction was set to begin in 2020, but was delayed due to COVID-19. The project officially broke ground in June 2021.
As word of the healing garden has spread, surrounding communities rallied to support its construction through donations. Lazaruk said the initiative has secured funding through partnerships with the United Church of Canada, the Manitoba government, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Frontier School Division, the Presbyterian Church, local Birtle businesses and many others.
The project raised more than $101,000 through grants and more than $10,300 in-kind through donations from 22 partners, sponsors and funders.
“A lot of people have jumped on board,” Lazaruk said. “It’s beautiful to see everyone coming together and wanting to be a part of this initiative.”
Birdtail Sioux First Nation Coun. Heath Bunn said he appreciates the positive effects the healing garden will have in the community. He hopes to see members take time to unwind, explore the space and reconnect with the land.
Every Birdtail member has been touched by residential schools and knows first-hand the lingering trauma created by the facilities.
Bunn said one can still see the schools’ effects on the nation, through addictions to alcohol and drugs and intergenerational trauma.
The nation is working to address these issues, he said, and the healing garden is one step on the journey to recovery for the community.
“The whole picture is just unfathomable, the grief that people are going through and the experiences they had at residential school,” Bunn said.
The healing garden shows nation members remain united and will help foster strength and resiliency in Birdtail. He noted the project would not have been possible if the community and its surrounding neighbours had not stepped up to help the project become a reality.
“It represents all that. The garden represents the start of new life,” Bunn said.
In the creation of the garden, they have found a balance between modern-day and traditional ways of life. He hopes to see it serve as a place where members work together and help each other.
“We want to bring that focus back to the community,” Bunn said. “That sense of togetherness has been lost throughout the years.”
The crisis of residential schools is one facing First Nations across Canada, and serious work lies ahead. He added the hurt will only grow as more unmarked graves are reported.
Healing will become more essential than ever in the coming months, Bunn said, and he is proud to be helping on that path with the garden.
“We’re trying to stop that circle [of trauma], and have something positive for people to come back to,” Bunn said. “This healing garden is the light in the middle of the darkness.”
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun