The preservation of a once forgotten children’s cemetery from the Red Deer Indian Industrial School is underway with the government’s purchase of the land.
“It’s an absolutely crucial step,” said local Indigenous advocate Lyle Keewatin Richards, who has been working to “repatriate” this little graveyard off Burnt Lake Trail for more than three decades.
Richards recalls it was 1987 when a private land owner brought in the wooden grave markers that he’d discovered on his property to the Red Deer museum.
The man since died and his son, Doug Moore Jr., has been very willing to work with the Remembering the Children Society to ensure these deceased Aboriginal children are not forgotten, said Richards.
Alberta Historical Resource Foundation bought the cemetery portion from the Moores last fall, and is negotiating to determine how to create public access to it.
Cecile Fausak, secretary of the Remembering the Children Society, said among the next steps will require hiring an engineer with ground-penetrating equipment to find where all the burial sites are so the boundaries of the cemetery can be determined.
Red Deer’s Indian Industrial School, with a poor sanitation system, had one of the highest death rates of all Indian residential schools in Canada. The 353-student facility, which operated from 1893-1919 under Methodist Church (now The United Church of Canada) and federal government auspices, had a mortality rate of about 20 per cent, said Richards.
Mostly Cree students from across Alberta — including the four Maskwacis bands — and as far as Manitoba were removed from their families and forced to attend classes there to learn farming and other skills.
Twenty burial sites were identified in the unmarked cemetery in an engineering survey done for a potential development in the area in 2008. But up to 50 children are thought to be buried there, as Richards said it was customary to bury more than one child per grave.
This was discovered when the Remembering the Children Society located two grave sites containing the remains of four children from the Indian Industrial School at Red Deer Cemetery.
The four teenagers had died during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, when school workers were too sick to lay them to rest in the small cemetery a couple kilometres away. Instead, “the handed (the bodies) over to the regular undertaker” in Red Deer, said Richards.
A monument to remember these four children was installed at Red Deer Cemetery in 2017.
Richards would like to add a similar cairn, inscribed with the other dead children’s names, to the small cemetery located a few kilometres across the Red Deer River and north from Fort Normandeau.
He envisions benches or a picnic area beside these burial plots, so family members can come to pay their respects and perform First Nations ceremonies.
“This is part of our residential school legacy, and also part of Alberta’s early history,” said Richards. He quotes Canadian senator and First Nations Lawyer Murray Sinclair who, when asked why he doesn’t leave the past alone, responded “because my Nation won’t let me.”
Fausak believes good relationships are built on trust, an acceptance of truth and facing up to responsibilities. “Unless we know the truth, we won’t go into the future in a good way… These things keep festering.”
The United Church representative feels many good relationships have been built through the Remembering the Children Society’s work in trying to make amends for past injustices.