Rick Lightning’s father Albert was just 12 years old when his six-year-old younger brother David died while attending the Red Deer Industrial School, west of Red Deer off Burnt Lake Trail. There was no ceremony or proper goodbye and nothing to mark the little boy’s passing. David was buried at the Red Deer Cemetery on the east hill.
The school was run by the Methodist Church from the mid-1890s to 1919 and took First Nations children from pre-school to age 14. In the first two years after it opened, a third of the children succumbed to diseases, such as tuberculosis.
When Albert and his brother Jim’s eyes would well up with tears, officials told them not to cry. There was no one to hug them or comfort them.
The family still doesn’t know the exact details of David’s death, more than 90 years after the residential school shut its doors.
Lightning’s father never got over his brother’s death. Even into his 70s, he would visit the site to honour his younger brother and do a ceremony. He lived to 104 and although many had forgotten the overgrown cemetery, Albert Lightning never did.
Others came upon it again in 2008 and an archeologist was called in to survey the area, with at least 18 graves being found. Records are scant on who the children were, how or where they died or were buried.
A committee was formed and for the past two years, members have been working on a way to honour and give closure to the children who once attended and died at the school.
Lightning is one of those organizing a special feast that will be held near the cemetery, at Fort Normandeau from noon to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, June 30. A pipe ceremony with the Nakoda people will take place at the cemetery in the morning. Cree, Nakoda and Métis people, as well as church representatives, are involved in the organizing and will take part that day.
“For us, our people, our feast is a prayer,” said Lightning, who works as a mental health therapist for Maskwacis Counselling Services in Hobbema. “We’ll recognize those children who died there. Honour those children and feed them.”
There will be traditional Cree foods served, including rice and raison soup, moose and deer meat, berries, bannock, and candies because there were children at the school.
People are asked to bring lawn chairs and plates.
As part of the feast ceremony, elders will say a prayer and offer a spirit dish that will be taken to the gravesite.
Lightning said the children who died have never been taken care of or fed, which is why the spirit plate is critical for closure.
The community feast will be open to anyone who wants to go, but Lightning said it will be a time of prayer, not a time for taking pictures.
“It’s a memorial to these children,” Lightning said.