REGINA — A residential school cemetery has become the first in Saskatchewan to be designated as a provincial heritage site.
Culture Minister Ken Cheveldayoff formally recognized the cemetery on the edge of Regina on Wednesday and said the children buried there will not be forgotten.
“With its new provincial heritage status, the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery will be protected and respected for generations to come,” Cheveldayoff said in a ceremony next to the site, which is surrounded by a peeling white rail fence.
There’s just one headstone — for the children of the school’s first principal — in the 680-square-metre cemetery. However, it’s believed dozens of Indigenous children lie there in unmarked graves.
Archeologists for the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association scanned the ground and identified 38 anomalies. Association president Janine Windolph has said there could be many more children because it was practice at the time to bury several together.
The school operated between 1891 and 1910 and an unknown number of students died there.
Residential schools were often crowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary. Children died from smallpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis. Some were buried in unmarked graves in school cemeteries, while others were listed as “missing” or “discharged.” In some cases, parents never found out what happened.
The federal government stopped recording the deaths around 1920 after the chief medical officer at Indian Affairs suggested children were dying at an alarming rate.
Heather Bear, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, was there Wednesday to commemorate “the land where our children, where their bones and their blood lies.”
“You know, we don’t know who these children are,” said Bear.
“But today we can say, as First Nations, we know that they were loved. We know that they had families that grieved: Mothers and fathers and grandparents and community.”
Elder Noel Starblanket spent 11 years in a residential school and said he bears the scars of what happened to him. He said the cemetery and the children have become very dear to him.
“Our children lie here. They have lain forgotten for many years and so it now falls upon us to remember them,” said Starblanket.
“For now, this is our way of saying that we will remember them. In our spiritual way, what we do, we ask those ones, even in their innocence, to pray for us up there. And we ask them to bring … good fortune to our people, ‘cause they’re able to do that now in the spirit world.”
Regina city council voted unanimously last September to grant the site municipal heritage status.
Windolph is now pushing for federal recognition.