The Saskatchewan government has officially designated a residential school cemetery on the edge of Regina as the 51st provincial heritage property.
The cemetery contains the graves of approximately 38 Indigenous children from 40 communities across Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba who died while attending the Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) from 1890 to 1910.
Parks, Culture & Sport Minister Ken Cheveldayoff said a heritage dedication is usually time for celebration, but it’s important to also recognize the dark parts of our history.
He added this is an important step in the province upholding the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“This came about because of the work of a group of people that had family, have had history here,” Cheveldayoff said.
This dedication was preceded by years of work by the RIIS Commemorative Association. In addition to provincial heritage status their work resulted in the cemetery receiving municipal heritage status last September.
“It’s like having a heavy fog on the land and it’s hard to walk in and around it. Over the years, since I started coming here it feels like it’s slowly lifting,” association president Janine Windolph said.
“Now it’ll become a place of light and positive energy, but it’s because people are coming here and interacting with the land, putting their tobacco down, saying their ceremonies.”
Windolph added that there is more work to do. This includes fixing up the cemetery fence, expanding the fence to include the children buried outside of it and getting a plaque to commemorate the site.
Additionally, the RIIS Commemorative Association is in the early phases of applying for federal heritage status, a two year process.
Another item of importance is the continued work to identify the children buried in the cemetery. Scans have been done of the ground, which show approximately 38 irregularities that are believed to be graves.
However, many of the records have been lost. The RIIS admittance record has been located, but the exit register is missing.
The communities the children came from have knowledge of who went to RIIS, but due to much of that record keeping at the time being oral, it is difficult to definitively determine who is buried at the site.
“We have potential names, but we can’t say for sure that these are the children that are interred here,” Lisa Hein, an archeologist with WSP Canada Inc., said.
While it is believed that there are at least 38 children buried in the cemetery, Hein said that number may be higher.
“In the early days, particularly in winter when it’s cold, they would stack burials to facilitate easier interment,” Hein explained.
There is a letter dated to 1921 that describes white crosses in the cemetery and there may have been 50 children buried at RIIS, Hein added. However, there is some doubt about the accuracy of the figures in the letter.
As work continues to identify the children, Windolph said they want to make the cemetery a community space where people can remember them.
“This is a significant piece of history we have here, with lots of lessons, but at the same time hope that we can move forward together by acknowledging it,” she said.
With files from The Canadian Press