Naming the unknown: How First Nations are identifying the children buried in unmarked graves

Click to play video: '‘Communities need to know where their children are’: Grueling detective work to identify who is in suspected unmarked Indigenous graves'
‘Communities need to know where their children are’: Grueling detective work to identify who is in suspected unmarked Indigenous graves
WATCH: For The New Reality, Krista Hessey travelled to Manitoba to show us the grueling detective work that goes on alongside the discovery of unmarked graves – and to meet one community that is trying to unlock clues about what happened to their missing children – Oct 22, 2022

Under the blinding Prairie sun, Katherine Nichols leads a group through waist-high grass to an area where she discovered several possible unmarked graves. The relentless vegetation growth, she explains, made it difficult to spot depressions in the soil. The research team had to do a controlled burn before it could go in with ground-penetrating radar machines to identify the potential graves.

But even still, that was the easy part.

With stunning regularity, headlines announce the discoveries of unmarked children’s graves on former residential school grounds. Within just the first six months of this year, 349 anomalies that could be graves have been found across Canada.

Members of the Six Nations Police conduct a search for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. Nick Iwanyshyn / The Canadian Press

By now, most Canadians are aware of the flurry of searches underway. They might even know how ground-penetrating radar technology works, if vaguely. These investigations seek to confirm with science what survivors of these institutions have long known: children suffered unnecessary deaths at the hands of state and church-run schools that neglected, starved, and abused them.

Since 2021, more than 1,800 possible unmarked graves of children have been detected across the country. These findings have led to even more questions: Who were these children? Where did they come from? And what led to their deaths?

“Communities need to know where their children are. It’s a fundamental human right,” Nichols says.

With grave markers removed or lost over time, the anonymity of these deaths continues to haunt survivors and affect communities. Now more than ever, living descendants of students who died or went missing at residential schools are looking for answers about what happened to their loved ones. Finding those answers, though, is a daunting puzzle — one that scores of researchers across the country are trying to unravel.

The exterior of the Brandon Residential School in 1960. Courtesy: United Church Archives

Nichols is one of them. She grew up just outside of Brandon, Man. On her way to school each day, her bus would pass an imposing three-storey building atop a hill just north of Grand Valley Road. She and other kids would wonder among themselves: What was that building for?

By that time, the Brandon Residential School had been abandoned for decades. It was finally demolished in 2000, and ever since, no one has been able to agree on what the land should be used for. A casino, affordable housing, a healing lodge, and a cultural centre were all put forward as ideas but none have stuck.

An aerial view of the former Brandon Residential School site where the main school building was located. David de la Harpe / Global News

Today, the former school site is overgrown and empty, except for garbage bags full of weathered children’s shoes that sit near the entrance. They were originally placed along the highway, but Brandonites complained about them being unsightly and had them removed.

“A lot of people in our community of Brandon don’t know we had a residential school, and that children died at that school and we’re trying to find them,” Nichols says.

Nichols’ childhood curiosity grew into a decade-long quest. In 2012, she partnered with Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, a First Nation nearby Brandon, and set two goals: to identify the names of the students who died at the school and locate the school’s burial grounds and unmarked graves on the property.

Katherine Nichols is the project lead for Sioux Valley Dakota Nation’s Missing Children Project. David de la Harpe / Global News

Nine years before the world would be shocked by the discovery of 215 suspected unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school, Nichols and the Sioux Valley leadership were trying to figure out how to complete the fieldwork needed without political support or funding.

Gerald Bell, an elder and residential school survivor, has been involved with the project for several years. He can recall instances when he had to defend the investigation.

“Some of the attitudes we ran into were, ‘They’re dead. We don’t know who they are. Why are you so concerned? You know, it’s not your child. It’s not your relative,’ but it is,” he says. “All nations, we’re all related. So that’s a concept, I think, that the people outside the Native community don’t understand.”

Gerald Bell speaks during a Sioux Valley Dakota Nation elders committee meeting in August. David de la Harpe / Global News

Nichols and Sioux Valley could not wait around for government officials and the general public to comprehend that worldview. They’ve always felt a sense of urgency to this work.

“Our elders are getting older and it’s important that their story is told, that their knowledge is shared, and that the history is documented,” says Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief Jennifer Bone.

Without the elders’ and survivors’ oral traditions, many of these graves would have remained unknown beneath the long grass. Nichols and Sioux Valley have now discovered 104 suspected unmarked graves on the Brandon school grounds. Eighty are contained within two forgotten school cemeteries and the rest are scattered east of where the main building once stood.

At its peak operations, the Brandon Residential School grounds covered 960 acres. The school’s first cemetery, the Assiniboine River Burial Ground, contains a suspected 56 graves. The North Hill Burial Ground was created sometime in the 1920s. It contains another possible 24 graves. Another approximately 24 unmarked graves were found in two locations around the former school building.

So far, Nichols has confirmed the names of 99 children who died while at the school — a product of slow, meticulous work and trial and error. As other First Nations embark on their own investigations, she hopes her experience can provide a sort of roadmap.

When she was starting out, she had thought that finding children’s names in the archives would be fairly straightforward. She figured there’d be attendance lists, cemetery maps, and death records.

“I think my expectations were a little naive,” Nichols admits today.

The United Church of Canada, which ran Brandon Residential School from 1925 to 1969, was supportive of Nichols’ research and gave her access to its archival holdings. But she quickly realized that many of the items she hoped to find did not exist — or, if they did, they were locked away in another collection elsewhere.

Inside the rare books room at the United Church’s Winnipeg Archives. Krista Hessey / Global News

But there were clues within the dusty boxes and tattered books that are stacked to the ceiling of the church’s Winnipeg archives.

A letter to the Department of Indian Affairs would mention the unfortunate loss of a child in a farming accident. Operations reports would note the need for more beds for children that had contracted tuberculosis and pneumonia. Parents wrote letters to school officials complaining that their children were malnourished and severely beaten. The RCMP would report instances of runaways to the government.

These fragments of information paint a picture of what life was like for students, and why so many of them died or tried to flee.

Up until the late 1950s, students were forced to work on the school’s farm. Courtesy: United Church Archives

The federal government, which funded and oversaw the residential school system, didn’t require the religious orders that ran the schools to report the deaths of children until the 1930s. Nichols compared those annual statistics to the church’s own records to put names to numbers.

But even then, there would be inconsistencies.

There were no universal recordkeeping standards in place for the residential school system, says Raymond Froger, the head archivist at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

There’s no national, or even provincial, registry that contains the names of the 150,000 children that went through the system. It was up to individual principals to oversee that proper records were kept. Church authorities often lacked the resources to maintain consistent documentation, explains Frogner.

A letter from a principal of the Brandon Residential School. Krista Hessey / Global News

“We have many cases of children that have, through the documentation of several years, 15 or more different spellings of their names,” he says.

Lorraine Pompana’s name was recorded as “Deloraine” in one of the documents she saw. She survived some of the most brutal years of the Brandon Residential School’s operations. During the 1950s when she was there, abuse and malnutrition were so bad that the school gained a reputation for the number of children making daring escapes.

“There was so much loneliness. … I felt like running away even at [six years old],” she recalls.

Her most vivid memories, though, are about the food they’d be forced to eat each day: two slices of bread soaked in lard.

“I tried to hide it in my sock,” she says. “But if they found out, you really got punished for that.”

To this day, she can’t eat bread pudding, or anything that resembles that soggy bread.

Lorraine Pompana revisits the former school site. She says the school reminded her of a prison. David de la Harpe / Global News

Pompana remembers students would just vanish from the school, and no one would say what happened to them. The paper trail also goes cold.

“If a child is not found, essentially the case is just closed and a new child is admitted,” Nichols says. “So we’re losing children that way as well.”

Students were also often forced to go by Western names when they arrived at the school, part of a systematic effort to erase their Indigenous identity. And if that weren’t enough to trip up researchers, each child was assigned and referred to by a number in official documents.

“First, we have to link these numbers to the names of children, and then from there, try to find any evidence of a loss of a child at that school at that time,” Frogner explains.

Frogner oversees the NCTR’s work on the national student memorial register, a list that he hopes one day will contain all the names of students who died or went missing while attending residential schools.

Raymond Froger is the head archivist at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and leads the centre’s work on the National Student Memorial Register. David De La Harpe / Global News

Today, that national memorial contains the names of 4,120 children. Frogner estimates that’s only about a third of the names that will be on the final report, which is expected to be released in March 2023.

Frogner shared the details of the intricate process underway. All four million pages in the centre’s holdings were digitized, then computer software scanned each text for specific keywords like “death,” “accident,” and “disease.” That narrowed it down to about 400,000 pages. Now, a small team of people is conducting a careful review of each flagged section.

“From that, we should be able to get a more or less final number for what we hold,” he says. “There’s still a lot of evidence out there.”

Since the Kamloops discovery in 2021, religious orders and governments have been more forthcoming with providing the centre access to their records, Frogner says, but they still don’t have everything.

A ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools and were identified in the National Student Memorial Register, is carried to the stage during the Honouring National Day for Truth and Reconciliation ceremony in 2019. Justin Tang / The Canadian Press

“I think they finally came to the realization that the only moral response was to open the records and be as transparent and accountable as possible,” Frogner says.

As the centre’s holdings grow, so will the list of names.


Melanie Bagley is holding out hope that one of those millions of pages will contain information about the fate of her great-aunt Lena. Before relocating to England, Bagley’s grandmother lived on a reserve northeast of Winnipeg and attended Brandon Residential School.

“She loved us dearly and was a really good grandmother, but she didn’t teach us any of her culture,” Bagley says.

Russell Bright and Melanie Bagley are seeking answers about what happened to their great aunt Lena who attended Brandon Residential School in the 1920s. David de la Harpe / Global News

It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she learned she had Indigenous heritage, somewhat by accident. A relative was visiting and began chatting about how things were going back home on the reserve. Since then, she’s been on a journey to learn more about her family’s ancestry.

One day, she turned to her grandmother and asked what it was like going to a residential school.

“She just turned to me and she said, ‘We never talk about that.’” Bagley says, pausing and lowering her voice to a whisper. “And it was like, ‘Oh, OK. I don’t know what that means, but I must never, ever, ever ask again.’”

But she remained curious. While researching her grandmother’s school life, she stumbled upon an unknown part of her family history: her grandmother had a younger sister, Lena, who also went to the school.

“When I found that out, I had quite a shock. I’ve never heard of her. So I spoke to a cousin and another cousin and nobody ever heard of her. And so, who is she? Where did she go?”

Melanie Bagley stands in the North Hill Burial Grounds. A plaque there lists the names of 11 students who died at the school but there’s an estimated 24 graves in the area. David de la Harpe / Global News

In her search for answers to those questions, she got in touch with Nichols. Lena isn’t on her list of names of students who died, but Nichols was able to confirm she arrived at the school at age six. Lena’s name appears in census records again at ages eight and 13, but then public records cease mentioning her.

In August, Bagley travelled to Brandon from her home on Vancouver Island to visit the former school grounds for the first time. Her brother, Russell Bright, joined her from Wales. Nichols shared her findings with them, while Sioux Valley elders, many of whom are residential school survivors, joined them in a ceremony to honour Lena.

“I’m really hoping the records show that [Lena] aged out and … she became a grandmother and lived a fairy tale, happily ever after, but my gut feeling is that she probably didn’t,” Bagley says while standing among the graves at the North Hill cemetery.

Over the past two years, the number of survivors and families looking for information about a loved one who attended residential schools has “increased exponentially,” Frogner says. The NCTR has received so many requests through its survivor inquiry system that it had to hire three new full-time staff members to keep up — raising the total to 51 people doing this difficult detective work on a national level.

An aerial view of the North Hill Burial Grounds. The metal fence and cairn were put up sometime in the 1960s.

Back in Brandon, Nichols prepares for the next stage of fieldwork: a geophysical survey of the school’s first cemetery site located along the Assiniboine River. The burial ground, which was used from 1895 to 1912, has been lost twice in the last century.

When the federal government leased the land to the City of Brandon sometime in the early 1920s, the grave markers were removed and the area was transformed into a public park.


In the late 1960s, it was rediscovered. After a former residential school student named Alfred Kirkness campaigned for its protection, the local Rotary Club and Girl Guides put a plaque and a fence around the site.

Then, in 2001, the land was sold to a private owner. By then, the property had become a campground. It changed hands again before being sold to the current owners in 2007 who renamed it Turtle Crossing. Sometime during this period, the fence was removed and with it, the most visible public marker of the graves.

An aerial view of the Turtle Crossing campground. David de la Harpe / Global News

The campground’s current owner, Mark Kovatch, denied Global News access to the site and declined to speak with us on camera. Over the phone, he told us he didn’t know that there was a burial ground there when he purchased the land and that he has been cooperating with Sioux Valley and the province to erect a fence around the gravesite.

But recently, that relationship has broken down due to disagreements over how to proceed with that work.

Nichols had planned to survey a larger area of the campground to identify the border of the cemetery for the fence. The work was set to start earlier this month, but Kovatch denied Sioux Valley access to the property.

Despite agreeing to it a few weeks before, Kovatch says he thinks the work is unnecessary and that he wants the fence to go up around the 56 graves that have already been located. If an agreement can’t be reached by next spring, he says he’ll go around the First Nation and put up the fence himself.

An aerial view of Turtle Crossing shows the approximate location of the 56 suspected unmarked graves. David de la Harpe / Global News

Sioux Valley held a peaceful protest outside his property in response to the news. Chief Bone is now calling on all levels of government to step in and help them ensure these sacred sites are properly protected.

“These are sensitive matters, to not only us here in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, but to all Indigenous people,” she said. “We’ve never really had to navigate through a situation like this.”

With the fieldwork halted, Nichols has turned her attention to the next stage of the Brandon Residential School investigation: locating living descendants of the 99 children on her list. It’s no small task; children were sent there from nearby Prairie communities, but recruitment extended as far as Alberta and Quebec.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief Jennifer Bone says all levels of government need to help communities access and commemorate these sacred sites. David de la Harpe / Global News

“There are so many affected communities with many different cultural backgrounds,” Nichols says. “So it’s essential that the relatives have direct input on what happens next. How do we protect the sites and how do we commemorate the sites?”

She’s already in contact with one family from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation. Alfred Linklater is a member of the remote community in northern Manitoba. His uncle, Henry Swanson, was one of the many children from the region sent south to Brandon Residential School. He died while attending the school on Aug. 2, 1940, at the age of 15.

The teenager was buried in the North Hill cemetery, where a plaque with his name on it sits today. It was Linklater’s mother’s dying wish to bring her brother’s remains home.

“That’s when we kind of took it upon ourselves to try to fulfill that dream,” he says. “She wished she would have been able to do it during her lifetime.”

Henry Swanson is one of the 11 names on the cairn at the North Hill Burial Grounds. David de la Harpe / Global News

She passed away in 2001. Linklater says, at that time, there were no avenues available for families who wanted remains repatriated. He remembers the frustration in her voice when she’d speak about it and the powerlessness that she felt.

He and his sisters, Carol Prince and Eva Linklater, are now working on submitting an application to the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs for resources to have Henry’s remains finally brought home.

It’s an onerous, slow, and expensive process from start to finish. But there’s an emerging movement in Canada of Indigenous communities advocating for the return of remains — whether buried in the ground or being held abroad in a museum.

Katherine Nichols kneels by one of the wooden crosses at the North Hill Burial Grounds. David de la Harpe / Global News

Without cemetery maps, exhuming and testing remains for DNA is the only way to know exactly who is buried in each grave. If that’s the consensus communities come to, Nichols says, that’s what they’ll do.

Generations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit have been living with unresolved questions. Finally, they are starting to get the answers they need to heal.

“It’s going to take a lot of people, many years of hard work,” says Nichols. “But we’re here to find all of the missing children.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.