After 70 years of searching, a Cree family finally knows where three of their loved ones were buried after they were taken from their First Nation in northern Manitoba and forced to attend residential school.
In September, on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Betsy Oniske and her family gave her three late aunts a proper burial. Oniske, 67, carried soil from their final resting places – places in the province that were once unknown to his family – and put them in three tiny wooden boxes, each marked with a flower on top .
At her grandmother’s resting place in Pimicikamak, the family dug a small hole just four feet by four feet wide and two feet deep. They put the boxes in the hole and offered a prayer. In Oniske’s mind, his aunts were returning to their mother, to whom they belonged.
“My grandmother would have been very, very, very happy,” Oniske said. “My grandmother always spoke of her three daughters who never returned to their own community in Cross Lake.
“Their bodies never came back…I didn’t know what she was talking about until I got older.”
Oniske says she and her family spent 70 years searching for the gravesites of her three aunts: Betsey, Isobel and Nora Osborne, who were taken to boarding school in the 1930s.
With the help of an archivist, she found their archives – but not without obstacles and reliving a painful history. To this day, Oniske is still trying to mark one of her aunt’s graves and she says the family is far from getting the accountability they seek.
mark their graves
Oniske said she was asked to find her aunts’ graves 20 years ago by her grandmother, Sarah Jane Osborne, before she died – and in 2020 she succeeded.
His research revealed in which cemeteries they were buried, but not their precise location within the cemeteries. This year, Oniske went on a journey to visit each of her aunts’ graves to find out exactly where their bodies lay. Of the three, only one – Nora’s – was marked with a name.
Searching through Anglican Church records, they discovered that Isobel and Nora were buried in Mapleton Cemetery at St. Clements Church in St. Andrews, Manitoba.
Oniske discovered that Betsey was buried at Riverside Catholic Cemetery in The Pas.
While visiting The Pas, she asked the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to mark Betsey’s grave.
“Father… They told us it was in row five, plot 13, and we said there was nothing there, no name,” she said.
“I said I needed the Catholic Church to put a marker on my aunt’s grave. So that’s what they did, they put a marker on it,” Oniske said. “They sent me a picture…I was happy about it.”
Oniske says her next step is to mark Isobel’s grave. A caretaker at St Clements Church told her that Isobel’s records exist at Gilbart’s funeral home in Selkirk and that she will write them a letter to find out exactly where Isobel was buried in the cemetery, she said .
“For Isobel’s grave there is still no marker,” Oniske said. “They just showed us where the grave was, but the grave is completely dug.”
Process riddled with obstacles
The family began their search for records in 2018 when a cousin, William Osborne, asked his friend Anne Lindsay, an archivist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Winnipeg, to help her family.
“I know how hard it is. Even if you’re educated, even if you’re a lawyer, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard because it’s technical and it’s so hard to get through “William said.
“A permissions process…that’s what they call bureaucracy.”
Lindsay, who specializes in cases relating to Indigenous peoples – particularly relating to residential schools and Indian hospitals – said one obstacle for the family was having a poor internet connection up north.
She helped them fill out forms and other bureaucratic processes to request documents.
They retrieved documents from church archives, Library and Archives Canada school records and Manitoba vital statistics. Their Vital Statistics application took a month to receive the documents, but Lindsay said it could take up to a year.
“Often being able to move to the next stage requires you to have the information from the previous stage and delays with vital statistics in particular are problematic,” Lindsay said.
They documented their research in an essay for the University of Manitoba titled The three sisterswritten by Lindsay and William.
“It was heartwarming,” Lindsay said. “The result in this case was about as good as I’ve ever seen… [For] a lot of families, there will be a gap they can’t fill.”
Two sisters sent to hospital and sanatorium
Their research revealed that two of the girls had been sent to a hospital and sanitarium after attending boarding school.
Nora was discharged from Norway House Indian residential school, which was run by the United Church, at the age of 15, to a psychiatric hospital, for what was described as a “nervous breakdown” in her records.
Betsey’s records show she entered Cross Lake Indian Residential School in 1939, when she was eight years old. She was then sent to Clearwater Lake Sanitorium in The Pas, where she died.
According to their death certificates, all three sisters died of tuberculosis, Lindsay said.
Lindsay says historical research reveals that in the 1930s and 1940s, city, state and federal hospitals played a bigger role than expected in providing health care to children forced to attend residential schools.
“It makes tracing families all the more complicated because now we have a whole different layer of potential places someone could end up in and a whole different kind of health records bureaucracy that they have to be able to navigate. “, she said.
“Small beginning” of healing
On September 30, at the ceremony honoring their aunts, William said he saw eagles whistling in the sky.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “We didn’t use the shovel to cover the graves. We used our hands…I asked them to cover it with their bare hands,” he said.
“To have them buried properly, to bring them back to us,” Oniske said.
“It was just very emotional…some of my cousins, they were happy and crying. To be the strongest, I didn’t want to cry. I cried later,” she said.
“We have a long way to go in terms of recovery,” William said. “But it’s a small start.”
Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.