PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE — Elders, politicians and Indigenous leaders gathered here on Wednesday to honour children who didn’t make it home from residential schools, while Manitoba’s Premier said the PC government is now committed to doing whatever it takes to help Manitoba communities search for, and identify unmarked graves.
“We recognize that this is a deeply emotional and demanding task that requires support and collaboration from all of us,” Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said Wednesday morning, during an event at which hundreds gathered on the grounds of the former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School.
“Our message today is, we are here for you, we are here with you, and we are here to learn from you.”
During the event on Wednesday, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit representatives from across the province gathered at the site of the former school, Stefanson announced $2.5 million in funding the province first pledged last year to “find and commemorate” unmarked grave sites near former residential schools will be distributed directly to Indigenous-led organizations and governments.
“We are proud to move forward together with this important healing process,” she said.
“We recognize that this work must be Indigenous-led, which is why we are flowing our financial investment directly to key Indigenous governments and organizations, to enhance resources, provide community support, and to build structures that prioritize families and survivors.”
Stefanson said she believes that along with financial contributions, the province must also listen to survivors and to those who have been directly and indirectly affected by the residential school system that ran for more than a century in Canada, and systematically forced Indigenous children away from their homes and families, and their culture and traditions.
“Each and every day we learn how we can help, and how we can learn from those who experienced these horrific things,” she said.
Stefanson said she hopes that identifying and commemorating children who died at residential schools would be an act of providing some dignity to those lost children.
“Every child matters,” she said. “And it is up to all of us to help First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities claim the dignity of these children, and of these communities that were tragically severed because of the residential school system.”
The announcement comes just more than one year after the news that what is believed to be 215 unmarked graves were discovered near a former Residential School in Kamloops B.C., and as a number of Manitoba communities including the Sagkeeng First Nation and Pine Creek First Nation continue searches for unmarked graves in their communities.
During the event, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee said that the many residential school survivors who attended on Wednesday and who took part in prayers and ceremony were living proof that the residential school system failed in its efforts to eradicate Indigenous culture, language and ceremony.
“It is humbling to stand before this very institution that represented the attempted colonization and assimilation of our people, and attempted annihilation of our culture, our languages and our identities,” Settee said. “But I also want to celebrate the fact that just before we got on this platform, we heard the prayers of our elders, and our people, still praying in their languages.
“The regime to destroy us did not work and it has failed, so we celebrate the resilience of our people on this very historic day. We can stand strong as the original people of this land, because they have done everything to destroy us and everything to crush us, but we are still here as Nations, and we are still here with our languages, and our ceremonies, and our identity.
“We are still here.”
Although the government and the premier have pledged money and support to help in the search for unmarked grave sites near former residential schools, one survivor says no amount of money or apologies can ever repair the damage that was done to her, and to so many who were forced to attend residential schools.
During a Wednesday event in which Premier Heather Stefanson announced how $2.5 million will be distributed to help Indigenous communities search for unmarked graves near former residential schools, residential school survivor Eleanor Elk spoke about the abuse she dealt with in a residential school when she was a child, just for trying to speak her own language.
“I had no knowledge of the English language, I only spoke my Dakota language, and I remember that they tried so hard to make me speak the English language, they washed my mouth with soap, they punished me, they strapped me.”
She also spoke about how there are many residential school survivors, including herself, that have felt for years that their stories of abuse and mistreatment were not believed, or taken seriously.
“This is the truth and someone has to say the truth,” Elk said. “These are the real experiences we went through, this really did happen and nobody made anything up, and I am not standing here making anything up.
“This is the truth, this is what I went through.”
According to Elk, it is that treatment and that abuse that so many dealt with for so many years in residential schools that has caused generations of hurt and trauma for Indigenous people, and that is why money alone won’t take away that hurt.
“I’ve always said no amount of money and no apologies are going to heal people, and it’s not going to heal my spirit,” she said.
She said she is now asking the province to do all that it can to support Indigenous communities now searching for unmarked graves, but also to listen to survivors of residential schools and those affected by the residential school system.
“The governments need to see what we went through, and need to understand and hear and feel what happened to us, because it is those governments that did this to us in the first place,” Elk said.
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun