A fence surrounding the cemetery of the Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) is one of the only markers left on the site.
Inside that fence are approximately 35 unmarked graves of students who attended RIIS.
“We have some names of students that have passed away in the school, but we can’t say for sure that they are the students that are in the cemetery,” said Sarah Longman, the RIIS Commemorative Association president.
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.
In the last decade, the association has worked to identify the unmarked graves and commemorate the site. The cemetery now serves as a provincial and municipal heritage site.
Sarah Longman, president of the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association, says more work needs to be done to survey the cemetery site.
According to Longman, it’s nearly impossible to determine an exact number of burials due to some graves being stacked on top of each other.
The association is considering surveying the land with a ground-penetrating radar for a third time to detect any other unmarked burials in the area.
“A 10-kilometre radius might be something that we look at because we don’t know,” Longman said.
“We’re talking 1890 here, which was a long time ago so there are a lot of unanswered questions.”
The RIIS Association is not the only group still searching for answers.
A total of 139 residential schools were identified in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, though this doesn’t include those run by provincial governments and those run solely by religious orders, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC). Roughly 20 were in Saskatchewan.
As part of the TRC’s Calls to Action, the federal government announced $33.8 million over three years in its 2019 budget.
The remaining $27.1 million will be allocated to communities trying to locate, memorialize and commemorate those children who died while at Indian Residential Schools.
On Wednesday, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said it plans to act on the distribution process now.
“Communities will receive information today to access the funding, which will be distributed on an urgent basis,” Carolyn Bennett said.
“We will be there to support every community that wants to do this work.”
It’s unclear if the RIIS Association will be able to access the funding since the cemetery is not located on federal land, Longman said.
However, she hopes it speeds up the process for residential school survivors and descendants searching for closure.
“The longer this goes on and the longer it takes, we’re losing critical information from the people who hold a lot of knowledge that we need,” Longman said, adding many local elders and survivors died before the association could uncover the burial site.
Detecting unmarked graves
Terence Clark, University of Saskatchewan associate professor and archaeologist, is part of a team helping develop a national strategy to uncover residential school burial sites.
They use ground-penetrating radar to detect “different densities in objects” buried in the ground. However, the equipment cannot identify individual burials or skeletons.
“The equipment is not perfect and small unmarked graves close to the surface are really some of the hardest things to find,” Clark said.
“The technology is not there that we can guarantee that every single child that is buried is going to located.”
Clark, who helped Muskowekwan First Nation find unmarked graves at the site of the Muscowequan Indian Residential School, said they work with survivors and community members to learn approximately where the burial site might be.
“It’s a bizarre feeling when survivors come up to you and they tell you that they buried a friend there and then they wait anxiously as you do the work to see if it’s right,” Clark said.
“They want the science to say, ‘That is right. That really did happen to them.’”
Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation Chief Roberta Soo-Oyewaste said identifying unmarked graves helps in the healing process for survivors, descendants and those who died.
“It helps by putting closure to a wound,” Chief Soo-Oyewaste said.
“Those angels they wanted to be found. They wanted to put back with their family and their nations to give some closure for their journey so they can move on.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.