Next steps in the search for unmarked graves on the former Red Deer Indian Residential School grounds could soon be mapped out, following a private meeting this week with the affected First Nations.
Lyle Keewatin Richards, of the Remembering the Children Society, hopes all nine First Nations that had children forcibly taken to the Red Deer residential school around the turn of the last century, will be represented at the meeting on Friday.
A consensus on how to move forward is needed from the participating bands from Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, he added.
Discussions will touch on whether ground-penetrating radar should be used to find the graves. And what kind of ceremonies should be planned to pay tribute to children who were removed from their culture, dying far from their families and communities.
The Red Deer Indian Industrial School opened in 1893 with the goal of assimilating Indigenous youths into mainstream culture by equipping boys with practical trades skills and girls into sewing, cooking homemakers.
But with an underfunded nutrition program and an abysmal sanitation system, the Red Deer facility became notorious for having the highest fatality rate of all residential schools in Canada.
Archival records indicate that over the school’s 26 years of operation, about 70 students died from total of about 350.
Keewatin Richards said a cursory site assessment in 2008 found at least 19 possible burial mounds on the former school grounds, across the Red Deer River from Fort Normandeau.
Despite its harrowing history, the Red Deer Indian Industrial School was omitted from a list of Canadian residential schools that could qualify for federal research funding for investigations into burial sites — until Red Deer-Lacombe MP Blaine Calkins questioned why in Parliament on June 10.
Calkins stated in the House of Commons that Red Deer industrial school was “one of the first iterations of what would become the residential school system… Terrible things occurred there…. 20 per cent of the students who were sent there never made it home (yet) it is not included in the list of 139 residential schools in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings.”
As a result of Calkins’ intervention, the eligible schools list was revised and funding will be provided for the Remembering the Children Society to seek out unmarked graves at the former school site, now owned by the province.
Keewatin Richards is pleased. He noted, while none of the former students are still living, many families are still seeking resolution and resting places for children who never came home. Keewatin Richards recognizes finding and memorializing the students’ graves must be done with great sensitivity.
Four graves have already been located — not at the school site, but in Red Deer Cemetery.
David Lightning, 14, died of the 1918 flu epidemic, along with Jane Baptiste, Georgina House, and Sarah Soosay, The four Indigenous students were buried in the town cemetery because no one was well enough to dig their graves at the school.
A granite marker was erected at Red Deer Cemetery in 2017 to mark these burial sites.
Remembering the Children Society — which includes members from the United Church that historically ran the Red Deer residential school — envisions erecting another memorial at the former school site to acknowledge the rest of the students’ graves.
Meanwhile, every June 11 is now proclaimed by the Mayor of Red Deer to be Remembering the Children Day.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.