Survivors call for demolition of former residential school in Birtle, Man

On Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation in western Manitoba, a healing garden is under construction.

A place for residential school survivors to gather, to reflect and to share their stories. But just 25 kilometres north — the Birtle Indian Residential School — the place that caused that harm still stands.

“I would like to have that place demolished,” said Ernest Noel in an interview at Birdtail Sioux, which is about 95 kilometres northwest of Brandon.

Noel was forced to attend the school at Birtle when he was 5-years-old. He spent 11 years there.

“I tried to walk across the dining room to see my sister and I got beaten up all the way back,” he said. “You don’t have family anymore. You’re all by yourself.”

A lot of what happened, he says, is still too tough to talk about today.

“It’s too hard. It’s too hard to explain everything,” he said. “I can’t talk about it. I couldn’t even tell my children about it.” 

The school site is now privately owned by someone in the area. The First Nation would like a say in what happens to it now.

It’s something Terrance Wasteste, who was also forced to attend the school as a youth, would like to see.

“It’s the first thing we see when we go to town,” he said. “A lot of memories. I think I’ve dealt with most of the things that I needed, primarily the anger that I felt.”

He still remembers the first few nights staying at the school.

Terrance Wasteste attended the Birtle Indian Residential School as a child. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

“It was a tough time,” said Wasteste. “I knew I was going to go and told my mom and sisters that I wouldn’t cry and ended up hearing all of the children crying at the first couple nights and shared my own tears of loneliness being ripped away from my family. 

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It made me a very angry person. I did finish high school in Brandon for my last couple of years and went on to university and didn’t do so well there because of the shock of being in the city, right. 

Wasteste said he would like to see something else built on the site. 

“Given the shape of the building, I think something else could be constructed in that space to help people who want to come and visit and maybe get themselves together, perhaps a healing centre or information centre of some sort,” he said. 

Owner willing to sell property

The owner of the site tells CBC News he is willing to sell the property. Dylan LaForte lives in the principal’s residence with his grandmother. 

“We just want to get out what we’ve put into it, not including my time cleaning it up, removing asbestos and tons of debris,” he said. “Just what we paid for the property and the value of what’s been stolen from us over the years in break and enters.” 

The owner of the school site says he is willing to work with anyone who wants to buy the property. (Heather Reimer/For CBC News)

He said the buyer can do whatever they want with it, including tearing it down. 

LaForte said trespassing, theft and vandalism have all been issues over the years. But, now he’s willing to work with the First Nation. 

The school has seen vandalism and break-ins over the years and has fallen into disrepair. (Heather Reimer/For CBC News)

LaForte said he’s been told the grave detectors are expected on the property, but isn’t sure when. It’s believed anywhere between 19 and 31 students died over the lifetime of the school’s three structures.

Chief wants search of grounds

Birdtail Sioux Chief Lindsay Bunn said searching the site for potential graves is something he would like to see happen, in light of the unmarked graves found in Kamloops, B.C. 

“The government should look at doing every residential school in Canada, because there is going to be a lot more numbers than that, and that’s just the beginning,” he said. 

“That’s just the icing on the cake. And then they’ll eventually find more. And us as leaders, we’re going to have to take that step and push for these things.” 

Lindsay Bunn was elected chief of Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation in 2021. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Bunn said he also wants to see the building change hands back to the First Nation or federal government. His family, like many in Birdtail Sioux, have connections to the residential school.

His grandparents attended the school. He said it’s something they rarely spoke about.

Feds open to working with communities

Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett said that’s something the federal government is open to working on.

“I think everything is on the table and we will work with the community to see what is necessary for them to move on their vision of what’s necessary for the healing in that community,” she said. 

“I would hope that any private owner would understand how important this is to communities and for them to be part of the solutions, when they recognize really how painful this is for that building to still be standing,” said Bennett. 

Healing garden under construction

For now, Bunn said Birdtail Sioux will continue work on it’s healing garden.

Work is underway on a healing garden at Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

“This is the main core of our community,” he said. “For elders to come sit here and help with this garden and the traditional medicines, it’ll eventually work out to be a great benefit for our elders,” said Bunn. 

The space for healing is set to be ready later this summer.

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