The federal government has completed a ‘first of its kind’ land swap that sees the privately-held lands that previously belonged to a Regina residential school - containing the graves of dozens of Indigenous children - transferred to an Indigenous commemorative group.

The Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) operated from 1891 to 1910 about six kilometres northwest of Regina, and was run by the Presbyterian Church of Canada through the Foreign Mission Committee.

It’s estimated that dozens of children who died attending the school are buried on the property’s cemetery, many in unmarked graves and some buried two or three on top of each other.

Although the land was privately owned for decades, it was given provincial heritage status in 2017, which meant that the site could not be altered unless approval was given by both municipal and provincial governments.

The RCMP, who owned hay fields adjacent to the property for their horses, arranged a land swap with the private land owner, which allowed for the secondary land transfer to the RIIS Commemorative Association on Tuesday.

"This big event that's happening is the first step in reconciliation," said Sarah Longman, president of the RIIS Commemorative Association.

Longman said once the transfer is complete she would like to erect a memorial to the children who died as a tribute to their descendants to “ensure people never forget” the impact residential schools had on Indigenous peoples.

The Tuesday ceremony included Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki, Longman, elders and Indigenous community leaders, and descendants of the students.

Goodale called the land “a place of deep human tragedy” in his speech, saying: “collectively, we acknowledge the injustices of the past. We begin to repair what we can, and we take an important step forward on the pathway of reconciliation.”