The fence that surrounds the cemetery for the Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) is adorned with flowers, stuffed animals and ribbons. It’s a makeshift memorial for the at least 36 unmarked graves of Indigenous children buried inside.
A commemorative plaque was unveiled on Aug. 11 to serve as a lasting memorial at what is now a provincial and municipal heritage site.
Former RIIS Commemorative Committee president Janine Windolph led the push for heritage status, and said she felt joy unveiling the plaque.
“I think this really helps to reinforce the efforts of the collective, and the journey they’ve been on for the past few years,” she said.
“As a mom, when I look at my own kids and think about what it would be like if they weren’t acknowledged, and when I think of that it brings great sadness and that’s why I continued the work here.”
The school operated just west of Regina, near Pinkie Road and the site of the Paul Dojack Youth Centre from 1891 to 1910. In the school’s 19 year history, about 500 students attended. They were brought to the school primarily from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.
Among those students were Frederick Dieter and Marybelle Cote. Their granddaughter, Debbie Hill, is a current member of the RIIS Commemorative Society.
“They were very kind, very gentle people. Very loving people, which when I found out about residential schools in my later years, I’m amazed at how kind and gentle and loving that they were,” Hill said.
Hill’s grandparents passed away when she was very young. They kept quiet about their time at RIIS, a trait shared by her father.
“They really didn’t talk a whole lot. My dad was a residential school survivor too, and there was some atrocities they wouldn’t even speak of in front of us kids, but we do know some things,” she said.
“My dad was always concerned about the lack of connection with family. My grandmother had sisters, and I don’t even know how many sisters, but she never got to see them. Ever.”
Cote was originally from Cote First Nation, and granddaughter of a chief. Dieter was the son of an Okanese First Nation chief. Neither of them were able to return to their home communities after graduating.
“My grandmother and grandfather were an arranged marriage and sent to live out to participate in, they call it The Colony, out at Peepeekisis,” Hill explained.
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Graduates would be placed in communities like this to show the effectiveness of industrial schools. Agriculture was among the main trades taught to male students. After basic school classes, boys would learn trades and girls would learn domestic tasks.
“The idea being that this was a good way of integrating the young Indigenous men and women into a white, European economy and culture,” author Doug Stewart said. In his book The Regina Indian Industrial School (1891-1910): Historical Overview and Chronological Narrative, Stewart details life at the school and its history.
Death and disease
The industrial schools operated on a per capita grant system. To boost enrolment, Stewart found evidence that children as young as three and four years old were being taken to the school.
These enrolment struggles were amplified by the spread of disease at RIIS, primarily tuberculosis.
“There were numerous deaths at the school, and numerous students who had been discharged from the school in poor health, died within a year or two of being discharged,” Stewart said.
In his archival research, Stewart has uncovered 95 school related deaths over the course of 19 years.
“That’s almost 20 per cent of the total student body,” Stewart said.
“Imagine the outcry that would be heard today if one of our schools in the city, 100 over a period of time, 100 students had been lost due to a disease.”
The school’s first principal’s three children were among the victims of the tuberculosis outbreak. They have a gravestone in the school’s cemetery. Indigenous graves are unmarked.
“There was a lot of sickness and the children having to face the death of their school mates. Being alone, maybe facing the possibility of their own death and that fear and the trauma,” Hill said.
Hill is a registered nurse by trade. Through her work she’s gained some insight into the psychological effects of trauma on children.
“The silencing in the victim is probably a method of survival, keeping your sanity and keeping one foot ahead of the other,” Hill explained.
Her dad, another residential school survivor, shared the same silence. Unmarked graves also entered her father’s experience.
“It’s just kind of a small example of really what happened across Canada. There’s so many kids buried across Canada, like for example my dad’s brother. He’s buried somewhere in File Hills. We don’t know, he was killed in residential school,” she said.
During the plaque unveiling, dignitaries such as Regina Mayor Michael Fougere and Parks, Culture and Sport Minister Gene Makowsky touted the event as an important step in the reconciliation process.
This sentiment is shared by those who’ve put in the work to preserve the history of the school.
“Without knowing the history of Canada, and why there’s all these assumptions and stereotypes of our people. Until we know that history, we’re always going to have that same attitude,” Hill said.
“So I think it’s a huge, huge critical component of the reconciliation process.”
“The more of us in the wider community that know about the school and other schools like it and what went on there; it’s my hope, that even in small ways, help facilitate the reconciliation process between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in our country,” Stewart said.
Preservation work will continue at the cemetery site. The fence is falling apart in sections, and a new one will be built. There are plans to perform further searches for grave sites beyond the fence’s boundaries as well.
The RIIS Commemorative Committee will also continue their work in trying to identify who is buried in the cemetery. Currently, they believe they have identified around 20 of the children buried there.