Last year on Sept. 30, while the rest of Canada was awash in orange-soaked commemoration of Truth and Reconciliation Day , a small group of protesters were marching in front of the entrance to a private campground located in Brandon, Manitoba. The Turtle Crossing Campground, owned and operated by the Kovatch family, was picketed by members of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation (SVDN). SVDN claimed that they staged the protest in response to being denied access by Mark Kovatch and his wife to search the campground for unmarked graves of children who passed away while attending the Brandon Indian Residential School (BIRS), established and run by the Methodist Church of Canada
“We want to rectify, you know, the problems or the history of the residential school and the trauma that it has caused for Indigenous people,” said SVDN Chief Jennifer Bone. “We’re leading the way and we want to ensure that those things are taken care of and dealt with in the most respectful way.”
In 2012 the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Missing Children Project identified 104 potential graves in two known cemeteries but could only find the names for 78 of the deceased students. The cemeteries were located on the former site of the Brandon school which SVDN now owns and on what is now Turtle Crossing Campground. The latter cemetery is located 1.5 km from the old Brandon school and was the first cemetery established for the Brandon IRS on land the Methodist Church owned at the time.
The first cemetery closed in 1912 and the earliest recorded interment at the BIRS cemetery is in 1928. The current manager of the SVDN Missing Children Project, Katherine Nichols, theorizes the possibility of a third cemetery on the school grounds to account for burials in the interregnum as it is likely that students perished at school during this period. A dedicated cemetery for students was part of the original architectural plans for Brandon IRS. Given the era and frequency of child mortality due to disease and the expectation of mostly receiving students from many remote Northern Manitoba reserves, local interment was practical, BIRS closed this cemetery in 1912 due to an agreement to sell a portion of the school’s land to the City of Brandon which had plans to establish a suburban park.
Principal Ferrier remarked at the time: “We discussed the situation, and came to the conclusion that inasmuch as the general public might have an opportunity in the future of observing this burying ground from a public park, some sentiment might arise regarding the matter, therefore I believe that it is unwise to continue burying in that plot of land. “
These are not missing children nor were they buried in unmarked graves. Since records show 51 deaths at BIRS between 1895-1912, it is presumed that all these souls were interred at the first cemetery. Names and dates of death are known for these children. These graves did have headstones but the City of Brandon had them removed sometime in the 1930s in order to prepare the area for a public park. The graveyard appears to have been graded with heavy machines around this time and then made open to public use. A former BIRS student was shocked to one day see people having lunch on picnic tables over the former graveyard. However, public sentiments prevailed and efforts were made to commemorate the burial site in the 1970s. A fence was erected and local Girl Guides planted a memorial garden and added a plaque to a boulder previously placed to mark the site. The memorial garden existed at least as late as 2004. The entire campground was inundated by the flooding Assiniboine River in 2011.
The Kovatches bought the campground in 2007 but the property was first sold in 2002 without any caveats and when the Kovatches purchased the campground, there were still no caveats attached to the title regarding the graveyard (a caveat was since attached in 2020). The Kovatches were the third private party to own the land.
The Kovatches’ tribulations began in 2018 after they submitted a development plan to the City of Brandon which involved adding new campsites in order to raise capital for the eventual construction of a ring dike to protect the property from flooding. In subsequent public hearings it was disclosed that the campground had been built over a graveyard. The City of Brandon issued a variance order to Kovatch requiring the graveyard’s area to be determined and bounded by fencing with approval by the City and the Province of Manitoba (the existence of grave sites triggered the Heritage Impact Assessment Act). SVDN evidently became involved because they now owned the school’s land and the first cemetery was established with the school. According to Kovatch: “The Federal Government had given them sole access and control of funds available for gravesite work. Despite the fact that the site was on private land in the middle of an active recreation business. I was never consulted or given the option of which First Nations groups I could work with.”
“(The cemetery is) in the middle of a campground,” explained Mark Kovatch. “The city built a campground over top of a grave site.… We have to work within (the) realities of it. My wife and I are trying to make a living and we can’t just shut the campground down.”
In Fall 2018 Kovatch persuaded SVDN to hire and pay the private firm of Finlay Heritage Consulting Inc. to conduct a geophysical survey of the cemetery and they produced a report with a GPS marked map showing the locations of the graves. The Kovatches decommissioned part of the campground for the purpose of locating and protecting the graves. The Kovatches had a cooperative relationship with SVDN under Chief Vince Tacan but he lost the position in 2019 to Jennifer Bone. Finlay Heritage identified 51 possible graves on Turtle Crossing and approximately determined the boundaries of the old cemetery but now Nichols was arguing that the boundaries were not accurate and further searches were required. As well, Nichols suspected there were other graves clustered around a fence separating the campground from BIRS’ acreage. Fearing the loss of more land and income to what might become an unlimited search, Mark refused SVDN any further access until they could present him with a plan that wouldn’t interfere with his ability to run the campground as a business.
Although Chief Bone said at the time of the Sept. 30, 2022 protest that further discussions would be held with the Kovatches, the fact of the protest underscored her disinterest in diplomatic resolution. Since becoming Chief, Bone had been ignoring calls and emails from the City of Brandon to provide a progress update on the fence since the variance order had an expiration date. Instead of responding to Brandon’s requests for an update, Bone and Nichols tried to have Mark Kovatch charged with desecrating a gravesite. Kovatch was subsequently cleared of any such charges. Mark obtained an extension of the variance order because of SVDN’s refusal to respond and another three months passed without any word from Chief Bone and SVDN. In June 2021 an exasperated Mark Kovatch told the City of Brandon that he was willing to build the fence himself if SVDN provided materials. Without satisfying the variance order, he can’t expand the number of campsites and raise capital for the ring dike.
Apparently, when SVDN learned that Kovatch had spoken to the City about building the fence himself, Bone and Nichols commenced a dirty tricks campaign. In June 27, 2021 with prompting from Nichols and SVDN band member Darian Kennedy, the Sikh Motorcycle Club paid Turtle Crossing a visit and the Kovatches and their campers were treated to a rolling blockade of loud motorbikes. Kovatch confronted Kennedy telling him that he and the bikers did not have permission to be on the grounds. Kennedy defiantly replied, “This is unceded land and I don’t need your permission to be here.” The day after that protest rally, Mark started noticing a surge in “1 star reviews” about the campground appearing online.
The City of Brandon finally managed to contact SVDN and got them to appear in a meeting on July 9, 2021 with Mark where he officially informed SVDN that he was offering to install a temporary fence around the cemetery according to the boundaries determined by Finlay Heritage. Kovatch asked SVDN to supply materials for the fence since the band was granted funding for such purposes. SVDN gave assurances of compliance at the meeting and afterwards resumed their strategy of stonewalling.
In Spring 2022 Bone and Nichols convinced the Province to extend the boundaries of the cemetery set by Finlay Heritage a further 50 meters in all directions. Kovatch objected as this would mean the loss of more campsites and he refused any further access to SVDN until they came up with a satisfactory plan to compensate him for the income he would lose as well as to finally install the fence. SVDN told the Province that it would do so but the Province eventually found itself also being stonewalled by SVDN.
Come late September 2022, SVDN hadn’t complied with any of the measures they agreed to and Kovatch learned that SVDN now wanted to expand their search beyond the 50 meter extension previously discussed. Fed up with SVDN’s acting in bad faith, Kovatch told the Province on Sept. 27, 2022 that he will no longer work with SVDN and he will instead be contacting the new Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential Schools, Kimberly Murray (Murray would tell Kovatch that she can do nothing because it is provincial jurisdiction). Chief Bone somehow learned that Kovatch contacted Murray and on Sept. 28 Bone issued a call to protest at Turtle Crossing on Sep. 30.. About 40 people attended the protest at the campground’s front gate. In the following days Kovatch received hate emails and the 1-star review campaign resumed after a hiatus.
At last year’s Gathering for Remembering the Children held in Winnipeg by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Nichols was reported as saying she “is hopeful in the next year or two there will be legislation to help navigate those scenarios as more and more communities initiate searches for potential unmarked graves.”
Nichols’ optimism seems to have been spurred by the appointment of Kimberly Murray a few months earlier. According to the Government of Canada, “The Special Interlocutor will work closely and collaboratively with Indigenous leaders, communities, Survivors, families and experts to identify needed measures and recommend a new federal legal framework to ensure the respectful and culturally appropriate treatment and protection of unmarked graves and burial sites of children at former residential schools.”
Although Murray just released her interim report, it appears Nichols anticipated the report’s call for legislative changes that would let her and any other First Nations teams gain access to any private land where there are suspected Indigenous burial sites. In the report, Turtle Crossing appears as the case study in the need to rectify the absence of pertinent laws forcing private landowners to grant access.
“The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation has identified the need for further searches to delineate the cemetery boundaries and once that is complete, a fence could be erected to protect the burial sites. In October 2022, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation planned to do a second survey of the site, but the landowner denied access. Unfortunately, due to the complexity and lack of clear legal mechanisms under federal, provincial, and municipal laws, the discretion to provide access to such sites continues to rest with private landowners.”
The objective of these new legal mechanisms would be to ensure that “access to sites should be provided so that those leading search and recovery efforts can complete appropriate searches and conduct ceremonies. Additionally, sites must be protected before, during and after searches take place.”
Imagine how ‘Murray’s Laws’ could play out for the Kovatches:
The SVDN Missing Children Project enters Turtle Crossing Campground one morning with a ground penetrating radar (GPR) crew and starts scanning around. Inevitably the GPR pings because all it does is pick up soil disturbances which can be caused for a number of mundane reasons. Because there is no onus on SVDN to actually dig and determine the cause of the ping, it is treated as a possible unmarked grave. SVDN then obtains an injunction to force the Kovatches to cease all activities on their land as the search and recovery continues. The owners of Turtle Crossing Campground consider selling the property but another caveat is attached to the title prohibiting any commercial or residential use until SVDN has completed their search and recovery which has no scheduled date of completion. The value of the property plummets (excluding its assessed tax value) and the property becomes more of a liability than an asset, and still remains vulnerable to flooding.
For the time being, the Kovatches continue trying to operate their business The negative reviews continue to appear. Mark remains sympathetic and respectful to the graves but he is frustrated by the way SVDN under Bone’s leadership has been rewarded for acting in bad faith. Bone and Nichols appear to have had foreknowledge of the new legislation that Murray would seek and to have chosen to dispense with any compromises pending new laws that would let them ride roughshod over the Kovatches’ rights.
In the case of Turtle Crossing, there is a plausible reason for believing unmarked graves are present but Kimberly Murray is willing to include more unconventional means of justifying the use of new legal mechanisms.
“Elders having (sic) been saying that the Spirits of the children are still here. People can feel them. There are things the children are doing to get noticed. Many have said that in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops), and at other sites where unmarked burials exist, the children are speaking. They are telling those who are willing to listen that they need to be found and that ceremonies and proper protocols need to be conducted to help their Spirits journey home to rest with their ancestors.”
Oral testimony is problematic enough without including the psychic transmission of disembodied spirits. Murray is willing to treat ghost stories as literal if the ghosts are telling the stories. Although the existence of unmarked graves at the Kamloops orchard hasn’t been confirmed by excavation, Murray is certain the graves exist because the ghosts exist, and Murray knows these Spirits exist because Knowledge Keepers say they hear them. Murray does not know these ghosts exist through more prosaic methods like archival missing child reports because whatever else the Spirits may be doing to let others know where to find them, they haven’t yet pointed to the parents who miss them. This is basically how the Kamloops orchard came to be an international headline.
Like the sensational story of unmarked graves in a Kamloops orchard, the story of such graves at Brandon IRS originates with the notorious Kevin Annett. In Spring 2008 Annett released a list of 28 sites, mostly former residential schools, where former students told him unmarked graves were located. Besides Kamloops and Brandon, Annett listed Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton. Around the same time last year when SVDN was blocking the entrance to Turtle Crossing, 34 excavations for unmarked graves were being completed at Camsell.
When these excavations yielded no remains whatsoever, a bewildered Papaschase Elder Fernie Marty remarked, “No bodies, no bones of any kind, no human remains, so that’s a good thing. Now to find where the bodies did go to. Where did they go?”
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