Residential school cemetery in Regina turned into gathering site, memorial for survivors
TORONTO -- Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing.
The burial site of at least 35 Indigenous children who attended the Regina Indian Industrial School has become a gathering place and memorial following the discovery of remains at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association member Lisa Hein told CTV National News that the significance of the burial site, which is now protected by a white picket fence, is important.
"Whether you have a cemetery from a residential or industrial school that has five children or 215 children… the number doesn't matter, it's the fact that it happened and that children died in these schools because of the conditions they were forced to be in," Hein explained.
The Regina Indian Industrial School closed in 1910, but others in the province lasted until the 1990s.
Fred Gordon says he spent seven years being abused at Lebret Indian Industrial Residential School from 1944 to 1951. While it has been 78 years since he was forcefully removed from his home by RCMP, he says the trauma still haunts him today.
"I was nine years old, and you’re being grabbed from your yard [as] you’re playing with other kids," Gordon said. "My grandparents were out picking berries and they came back and I was gone."
Under the Indian Act, Indigenous people were forced by the Canadian government to attend residential schools. The RCMP played a major role in what survivors call kidnappings.
"They had no heart; they were heartless people, dangerous people," Gordon said.
With 146 residential schools across Canada, experts say there could be more undiscovered burial sites.
Many communities are working to protect these cemeteries, including the one at the Regina Indian Industrial School, which used to be private land.
"With it being owned privately, we had very little say as an organization as what we can do to protect the cemetery," explained Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) Commemorative Association Chair Sarah Longman.
The RIIS Commemorative Association worked tirelessly to get the land protected, but the private owners refused to sell.
However, various levels of government under the leadership of former Wascana-Regina MP Ralph Goodale were able to broker a unique land swap for the site involving neighbouring RCMP land.
"This was a precious piece of land to preserve and protect it," Goodale told CTV News. "It took quite a time to get the logistics done, but the RCMP were very cooperative."
With the cemetery in the hands of the RIIS Commemorative Association, Longman says its future is protected.
But she noted that having the land protected is only a small step towards reconciliation for generations of residential school survivors who grew up in fear of the RCMP.
"It was certainly something we very much welcomed, and it's a great start… it's not the reconciliation, it's a start," Longman said.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.