Dylan Leforte, 26, is cleaning and restoring the former Birtle Residential School, and he wants partiers and trespassers to know the place isn’t abandoned - he and his grandmother call it home.
Leforte, a business owner from Winnipeg, and his grandmother bought the land and everything on it in 2015, not realizing they had just purchased a rundown residential school.
“I thought it was an old hospital or something. We didn't know what we were walking into… The previous owner listed it on Kijiji as 26 acres of land with old buildings on it.”
In fact, Leforte says he only learned it was a residential school after he started living at the site. He was investigating noise from a group of late-night trespassers who told him what the “hospital” really was.
Since then, he and his grandmother have been living in the former principal’s residence beside the school while he works on restoring it. Yet people continue to walk onto the property and break into both the school and the house, unaware or not caring that it’s occupied.
“We found people had used sledge hammers to knock the lock off the door and steal tools. Every time I put in windows they get broken.”
“It’s getting a little old.”
But that hasn’t weakened Leforte’s determination to make something of the school.
When the National Trust for Canada recently designated the school as an endangered building, Leforte was unimpressed. He says if they had contacted him, he would have told them he’s in the process of saving it.
He’s been putting in 12-hour days removing an estimated 15,000 pounds of debris from two of the three floors and starting the arduous process of installing windows.
The school stood empty for about ten years before he took it over, and during that time, revelers partied, camped in the rooms, and even had bonfires inside.
With his and his grandmother’s incomes (she works and he owns a security services company in Winnipeg), Leforte is putting his own money into creating a future for the school. He envisions a private museum that depicts the residential school experience.
“People could take tours a couple months of the year and see what it would have been like.”
Leforte calls his accidental purchase “an architectural marvel,” built like a fortress with steel beams that extend 30 feet underground and three layers of brick for walls. “This place will stand for another 100 years before needing brick work.”
Before winter arrives, he hopes to be finished with the clean-up, installation of windows, and opening the drains so water can flow off the roof.
On the surrounding acres of land, he dreams of one day having a hobby farm with horses, sheep and organic chickens plus filtered water and green energy supplied with help from the school’s huge flat roof.
The fact that Leforte’s grandfather was indigenous and a residential school survivor has factored into his decision to restore the infamous site of so much deprivation.
“Places like this should stick around as a monument or reminder of the stuff the government pulled and make sure they never pull it again. Because as soon as they mow them down, we'll just forget it ever happened.
“It's important to remember.”