Warning: This story contains distressing details.
Twins Michael and Michelle Brandon say they were not allowed to use the front door like the town children at Rossburn Elementary School — First Nations students had to go around the school and use the back door.
Students from Waywayseecappo First Nation were not taught in the main building; their learning happened in portable classrooms behind the school, the Brandons said.
"We called [them] 'the huts,'" Michael said.
Members of Waywayseecappo First Nation in Manitoba say when they went to Rossburn Elementary School in the late 1960s and early '70s, they were separated from other students and faced daily abuse by staff members — and they want their pain and suffering recognized, as it was for Indigenous federal day school students.
Waywayseecappo First Nation, about 280 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border, signed an agreement with the federal government in 1965 to have its children educated in Rossburn, less than 10 kilometres away.
The government paid $99,973 to the school district of Rossburn to build classrooms for the additional students. In the agreement, both parties agreed to "ensure there will be no segregation in the schools by race or colour," says a document found by Valley of the Birdtail authors Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii).
That's not what happened, the Brandons said.
Michael and Michelle were six when they started at Rossburn School. They were taught in the huts in grades 2 to 4 in the 1970s.
"I just remember the Native kids going through to the dark hallway [to the huts]," Michelle said.
The portable classrooms were built behind the elementary school in 1968.
A tender published on May 26, 1968, in the Rossburn Review sought someone to build three units for the elementary school. The ad specified the units must be winterized and meet regulations set by the Manitoba Department of Education and Fire Commission, and health regulations of the province.
The Brandons say the huts were poorly insulated.
"We always had to wear a jacket," said Michelle, 51. "It was freezing cold in there."
Her family couldn't afford high-quality winter wear, so she didn't have a jacket that kept her warm enough at school. She now wonders if part of the reason she felt ill at school was because she was always cold.
Children from Waywayseecappo were sent to federally run day schools in Manitoba before 1961, then transitioned to the provincial school system.
The Indian or federal day school system operated from the 1860s to the 1990s, and attempted to assimilate Indigenous children by erasing their culture. Unlike residential school students, day school attendees were allowed to go home at night, but many suffered abuse at the government and church-run schools during the day.
In 2019, a class-action lawsuit to compensate survivors for harms they suffered while attending federally operated Indian day schools was settled with the federal government.
Michael Brandon tried to apply for compensation, but was told he wasn't eligible because Rossburn Elementary was not a federally run day school and wasn't listed in the settlement agreement.
At the time, the public school was operated by the Pelly Trail School Division.
"I just wish we were part of the Indian settlement," Michael said. "All of us endured physical abuse."
He said his experience was that of a day school, just under a different name. He believes he is entitled to compensation and an apology from the federal government.
Michelle, however, said she doesn't want to be compensated.
"I just want my story to be heard," she said.
Like the Brandons, many former students haven't talked openly about their times in the huts until recently. They said it was only after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made its calls to action that they started to feel like they could share their experiences.
Tina Cote, 52, said staff told her the huts would be used to separate Waywayseecappo children. She recalls an adult saying, "these huts are being put there for you Indians."
Cote remembers feeling humiliated after a teacher forced her to sit in the garbage can because she was chewing gum.
"She made a hat with a word written on it: Dunce," Cote said.
"I cried right through the whole class. And, you know, they were laughing at me."
Cote said the abuse she faced was emotional and physical.
Others say they experienced sexual abuse.
Arlene Cook, now 65, said she was inappropriately touched during gym class.
"We had to put these outfits on. They were one piece and looked like a bathing suit. Most of us native kids didn't have bathing suits and we didn't dress like that in public," Cook said. "The male gym teacher would put his hand, like, in front of your body and the back on your bum … supposed to be helping."
She said it was a regular occurrence and she saw other girls being touched the same way.
"An apology would be good," she said. "It would help with the hurt that I went through.… It would lessen my feelings."
CBC News sent a series of questions to the federal government, including whether it was aware federal funds were used to build portable classrooms that were then used to segregate Indigenous students.
A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said the school was provincially run and documents related to school history are in possession of the province, so further research would be needed to answer the questions.
"Addressing historical claims related to harms committed against Indigenous children is a crucial step towards renewing our relationships with Indigenous Peoples," the spokesperson said.
A provincial government spokesperson said school divisions are responsible for administering public schools.
"Portable classrooms, also informally known as 'huts' in some cases, have been and continue to be used in schools where needed to manage increasing enrolments. Manitoba Education and Early Childhood Learning is not aware of their use for segregation of Indigenous students at Rossburn School," the spokesperson said.
Rossburn Elementary School is run by the Park West School Division, which was established when the Pelly Trail and Birdtail River school divisions merged.
Superintendent Stephen David said in an email that allegations of sexual and physical abuse have not been reported to the division since it was established in 2002. He said he does not know if reports were made to the Pelly Trail School Division before the merger.
David encourages anyone who experienced abuse to make a report to the division.
Gilbert Longclaws, 57, also went to Rossburn Elementary and said he keeps in touch with former students from Waywayseecappo, and they share similar stories of school abuse.
"They told me what happened to them," Longclaws said. "There's a lot of people that went there, a lot of people got abused."
Longclaws recently reconnected with Mary-Ann Mitchell-Pellett, who he said was one of the few white students he remembers being taught in the huts.
Mitchell-Pellett said she saw Longclaws return to class with a teacher, and something had happened to his face.
"It looked like he was strapped across the face, and his face was bleeding," she said.
"What I saw with Gilbert, I've never seen a white person treated like that," she said. "That has always haunted me."
Longclaws wants to know why the government is not taking responsibility for Rossburn School.
"Why aren't we included when we were abused?" Longclaws said. "We're not lying about what happened. This really did happen."
Longclaws wants compensation so he can give the money to his three grandchildren.
"They just lost their dad a year ago," he said. "If I were given money, it [would go to] all my grandchildren to help them with their future."
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available to all Indigenous people across Canada, 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.