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‘Time to celebrate’: Indigenous group gains ownership of residential school cemetery

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WATCH: A dark chapter in Saskatchewan’s history is becoming a little brighter. The land that houses the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery is changing ownership to a group dedicated to preserving it – Jun 25, 2019

A dark chapter in Saskatchewan’s history is becoming a little brighter as the land that houses the Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) cemetery is changing ownership to a group dedicated to preserving it.

For years, the cemetery sat on private land, but after a lengthy process, the RCMP traded its adjacent parcel with the private owner to acquire the cemetery land.

On Tuesday, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki exchanged tobacco with Sarah Longman, RIIS Commemorative Association president, as a symbolic gesture, gifting the historic land to the association

READ MORE: Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery plaque highlights dark chapter in Canadian history

“It’s been an emotional journey, it’s been a physical journey, it’s been a spiritual journey,” Longman said. “Many of us are still in the process of just pinching ourselves that this is real. We are actually landowners now.”

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The school operated just west of Regina, near Pinkie Road from 1891 to 1910. In the school’s 19-year history, more than 500 students from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba attended. Longman says children as young as three years old were taken from their homes and forced to attend RIIS.

“To have communities without children playing, without children laughing, without children celebrating is unimaginable,” Longman said.

READ MORE: Memorial walk held to remember the dozens of children who died at Regina residential school

Nearly 100 students died while attending the school, and at least 35 of them are buried in the fenced-off cemetery.

“Finally, we’ve given recognition and we’re honouring the children that have lost their lives in Indian residential schools,” said residential school survivor Barry Kennedy. “This is one of those small victories. We’ve had a number of them lately and, for the Indigenous Peoples of Regina, Saskatchewan and Canada, it’s time to celebrate.”

The cemetery was declared a municipal heritage site in 2016. It gained provincial heritage status in 2017. Last August, a commemorative plaque was unveiled to serve as a lasting memorial. Now that the land transfer is complete, there are talks of making the cemetery a federal heritage site, but nothing has been put into motion.

READ MORE: Residential schools subjected students to disease, abuse, experiments: TRC report

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“As we move forward, it could be used as a wonderful teaching tool,” Kennedy said. “We can use this as something to ensure that this never happens again, that our children, our grandchildren, never have to live the life that we survived.”

Longman challenges Saskatchewan residents to learn about our shared history and the repercussions that residential schools have on people today.

“It wasn’t only something that happened historically, but there’s also survivors as well as descendants who are still with us, today, who had experiences with the residential schools,” Longman said. “To honour them, we need to learn about that history and understand what it means.”

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