The Sandy Bay residential school was destroyed by fire decades ago, but its tragic legacy lives on.
Now, the local Manitoba First Nations community wants to know if any missing children remain at the site.
An agreement has been signed between the federal government and Dakota Tipi First Nation to guide potential unmarked gravesite investigations into five former residential school sites: Sandy Bay, Portage la Prairie, Assiniboia, Brandon, and Fort Alexander (Sagkeeng).
The agreement will create a survivor-led steering committee to search each of the sites, but also to do research at various places, including church and Hudson Bay Co. records, St. Boniface Archives and the Winnipeg-based National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation, to determine how many students attended the schools.
Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation Chief Trevor Prince said he never attended a residential school — and his grandparents hid his father and two aunts from having to go — but members of the community tell him there were some students who never came back, even though the building (closed in 1970) was located on the reserve.
"I’m hoping they don’t find anything," Prince said Tuesday.
"But I have been hearing they will find something. People are saying a kid would enter the school and, all of a sudden, they were gone."
Last year, news that more than 200 potential unmarked gravesites had been found at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School in B.C. shocked Canadians. In its wake, hundreds of such sites have been flagged at other former residential schools.
In response, the federal government earmarked about $320 million in support for Indigenous-led, survivor-centric and culturally informed initiatives to help respond and heal from the impacts of residential schools. So far, about $116 million has been committed.
Regarding efforts in Manitoba, a spokesperson said Tuesday evening that the federal government has committed $353,320 over three years from the Residential School Missing Children's–Community Support Funding Program.
In a statement Tuesday, Chief Eric Pashe called the announcement "a historic time for the Dakota people."
"The time has now come for our history to be properly told," said Pashe. "We have an initial commitment to help engage with our survivors to determine how they would like to proceed.
"As you can imagine, there is significant trauma and, as stories are coming forward, we want to make sure we listen to our survivors in what they would like to see happen. The funding will also help us do that and scope the initiative properly," the chief said.
"We look forward to continuing to work with Canada to discuss the project and ensure we can do this right."
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller credited First Nation leadership who "worked tirelessly to ensure that the community is in a good position to begin the important and difficult work of searching archival records and undertaking fieldwork to investigate five former residential schools in Manitoba."
"The government of Canada, and all Canadians, support the residential school survivor project, which will be guided by a survivor-led steering committee, to contribute to the healing of survivors and community of Dakota Tipi First Nation."
Prince said while it has been decades sinceSandy Bay residential school closed, many residents are still dealing with the negative effects.
"A lot of our people are still experiencing the traumas from back then," he said. "It is a touchy subject for me. I get emotional when talking about it. And it’s not just my parents and grandparents — it’s the entire realities of First Nations across Canada."
Prince said researchers from the University of Manitoba came to the site last summer with ground penetrating radar equipment, but are still analyzing the results.
"If they do find something, then there will be big decisions to make: whether we dig them up and give them a proper burial or leave them there and have some type of memorial right there. As chief, I won’t make the decision on my own, I’d have to bring the community together," he said.
"But I say these kids are lost and want to be found."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.