The provincial government’s promise of funding to find unmarked graves of Indigenous children from residential schools is being welcomed by local advocates. But the next step of the reconciliation process is raising questions.
Indigenous advocate Lyle Keewatin Richards called the government’s funding announcement “fantastic news.”
But he is concerned the Remembering The Children Society is being left out of the picture, now that government has purchased the graveyard site and is negotiating with First Nations groups.
Alberta government officials want to gain consensus on what the next step should be from the eight First Nations and Métis communities that the deceased students came from.
While it’s nice to try for a consensus, the reality is “you are not going to make everyone happy,” Richards added.
“I wouldn’t want them to make the excuse that they couldn’t get everyone on board for it not to move forward.”
The Remembering the Children Society, which has worked for over a decade to identify and mark the forgotten graves on the site of the former Red Deer Indian Industrial School, would like to hire a company to do the ground-penetrating radar needed to identify all the graves at the site.
Nineteen graves have been located so far, but 69 students are recorded to have died at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School, according to the memorial register kept by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
If the Kamloops situation is an example, more students could have died at the school, said Richards.
Last week, 215 children’s graves were located around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, when the official death record had previously listed 53 students.
On Tuesday, Rick Wilson, Alberta’s Minister of Indigenous Relations, issued a statement of support for survivors of the residential school system and the families who lost loved ones.
“Truth and Reconciliation actions calls for the federal government to work with churches and Indigenous leaders to let families know where their children or relatives are buried. Alberta joins that effort,” said Wilson.
“Today, I am announcing the Alberta government’s intention to fund research into the undocumented deaths and burials of hundreds of Indigenous children who did not make their way home. The details of that funding will be announced in the coming days,” he added.
Residential schools operated between 1893 and 1996 across Canada. Of the 134 schools, at least 25 operated in Alberta.
Wilson acknowledged the inter-generational trauma caused by Indigenous parents having their children taken from them to attend schools – away from their families, communities, languages and culture. Many of these children never returned, succumbing to disease caused by poor school conditions and scarce food.
“Finding their graves is a matter of reconciliation and another step toward closure for families,” said Wilson.
Métis Nation of Alberta President Audrey Poitras said the funding announcement by the minister is a good start, but the agency wants to see an immediate commitment of funds, resources, and a timeline.
“History sadly supports our mistrust, but we hope that this devastating discovery is the catalyst for true reconciliation in this province,” said Poitras.
The Red Deer Indian Industrial School, once located across the Red Deer River from Fort Normandeau, was operated by the United Church of Canada, under federal auspices.
The United Church formally apologized twice for its role in running residential schools: In 1986, the church acknowledged it was wrong to suppress Indigenous culture and language and to impose Westerner values on First Nations people, and in 1998 the church apologized specifically to residential school students and their families.
Retired United Church Minister Cecile Fausak is secretary of the Remembering the Children Society. She is working with members of Red Deer’s Sunnybrook United Church and local Indigenous advocates to locate and preserve the cemetery beside the former Red Deer residential school.
Whenever great injustices are committed by institutions, Fausak said, it’s easy for individuals to absolve themselves of responsibility.
But as a former church employee, Fausak said, she wanted to take personal accountability for the great harm that was inflicted on the Cree, Stony, and Métis people. “That is why I am doing this work.”