Westman ride to honour residential school survivors

·5 min read

Next week residents of Waywayseecappo, Birdtail Sioux and Canupawakpa First Nations as well as Sioux Valley Dakota Nation are embarking on a ride — whether that’s on horseback, bicycle or by foot — to spread awareness of the former residential school system in Canada.

Participants will convene in Waywayseecappo on Sunday to begin the journey with a breakfast at 10 a.m., followed by a blessing at 11. From there, they will travel to the site of the former residential school in Birtle, located 142 kilometres northwest of Brandon, at noon.

The Birtle school was built in 1882, two blocks west of the Main Street bridge, according to the Manitoba Historical Society (MHS). Originally constructed as a school for the children of that community, then-mayor J.S. Crawford had the federal government lease the building as a residential school for Indigenous children from surrounding reserves in 1890. The MHS said the building operated as a residential school for two years before town children returned to the school.

A dedicated Indian residential school was built at the site in 1894, on a hill overlooking Birtle. Responsibility for the facility transferred from the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the federal government in March 1969, before it closed in 1972.

On the second day of the ride, participants will make their way from Birtle to Birdtail Sioux First Nation, located 135 km northwest of Brandon. The day after that, the group will travel to the site of the former Washakada Indian Residential School, also known as the Elkhorn Indian Residential School, in the rural municipality of Wallace-Woodworth, 76 km west of Brandon.

The school opened on June 10, 1888 and burned down in the late 1890s. According to MHS, it was replaced in 1897 and remained open until February 1918. It was reopened in June 1923 and operated until its permanent closure on June 30, 1949. The building was demolished in 1951, but the ruins of the school are still there, and a cemetery contains the remains of the children who died while attending the school.

On Sept. 24, the group will travel to Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, 50 km west of Brandon. The next day, participants will make their way to Grand Valley Provincial Park, 12 km from Brandon along Grand Valley Road.

As the Sun previously reported, the Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Council has been working with the City of Brandon to add an honorary name to Grand Valley Road, which leads to the former Brandon residential school site. “Wokiksuye Ċanku,” the proposed honorary name, translates to “Remembrance Road” in the Dakota language.

Finally, on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the group will travel from the park to the site of the former Brandon residential school in the rural municipality of Cornwallis. The school operated from 1895 to 1972, where the building remained abandoned until August 2000, when it was demolished. A graveyard on site contains the remains of some of the students who died while attending the school.

The cross-Westman tour was inspired by Travis Mazawasicuna’s father, a residential school survivor who struggled with addiction. Mazawasicuna, along with his wife Helena, is a Sioux Valley Dakota Nation resident who has organized similar rides in the past. This year he was inspired to arrange something even bigger in honour of his father.

His father’s struggle with addiction — a result of his mistreatment at the residential school — is something that has deeply affected Mazawasicuna, he said. Sober since 1991, he has been on a long and sometimes painful journey of healing.

“When you reach your sobriety, you want to make amends. I had to find out what my cause was. I did a lot of research, a lot of analyzing and soul searching.”

Part of this process, Mazawasicuna said, was confronting his father and trying to understand what he had experienced and how it affected him.

“I approached him and told him how I felt and what had happened and how it was, and he sat there with his back against me. I didn’t see his face. I got frustrated, so I went around to look at him and he was crying,” he recalled. “I walked out of the house, and then I went back a couple of days later and we started talking and spending more time together.”

Mazawasicuna’s father died shortly after, but not before they travelled to different communities that had been affected by residential schools, planting a seed in Mazawasicuna’s mind that would later become the inspiration for this month’s ride.

The trip is, in part, Mazawasicuna’s reaction to Pope Francis’ recent apology to Indigenous people for the church’s role in the residential school system.

“When the Pope made the announcement and said sorry … that didn’t sit well with me, because of what my dad went through and put myself and my generation through,” Mazawasicuna said. “Our relatives were forced into this system where they had no choice.”

But it’s also a way for Mazawasicuna to offer healing, not only to the generation affected by residential schools but for all Indigenous people. It’s also an opportunity, he said, for non-Indigenous allies to show their support.

“This is my way of [offering] a healing journey for all people, for all races.”

For Helena Mazawasicuna, helping her husband put on the event is a deeply personal gesture.

“I’m half First Nation and my son is a Dakota boy,” she said. “It’s extremely important to recognize all the children that, for years, have been missing. There has been no closure for their families. They need to go home.”

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun