One in five students at Red Deer's residential school died and an Indigenous group wants answers
The Remembering the Children Society says they still haven't found all of the graves at the site
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Before the discovery of what's believed to be the remains of 215 children at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., work was being done to identify burial sites at 25 residential schools in Alberta, including one with the highest mortality rate in Canada.
Lyle Keewatin Richards is vice president of the Remembering the Children Society, a group that focuses on reclamation and preservation of residential school cemeteries and history in Alberta.
Recently, the group has worked on identifying and honouring remains at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Red Deer, Alta., which Richards says was open from 1893 to 1919.
"There were 310 students that went there and it had the highest mortality rate of any school in Canada, and that was 20 per cent," he said.
Four graves at the school were found off the property and belonged to children who died during the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918, said Richards, and 19 graves were found at the schools' cemetery.
"If there was two to the grave that would be 42 kids so there's still, you know, 20 odd kids that are unaccounted for," he said.
"They didn't know how many people were at Kamloops. Maybe we don't know how many people are here either," he said.
'We need to know all of the graves'
Brian St. Germain, who is also a part of Remembering the Children Society, said he was horrified to learn about the conditions of Red Deer's residential school, which is ultimately why it closed down.
"We do know is how bad that school was in terms of mortality rate and conditions … [and] I think we need to know all of the graves that could be there, might be there."
He said in order to honour the students, the group wants to be able to identify who the children are in those graves.
"I mean, the goal of the Remembering the Children Society is to honour and to keep in the forefront the memory of that school and the children who attended that school," he said.
"Residential school records were often very inaccurate, misleading, sometimes not complete."
Kisha Supernant, an associate anthropology professor at the University of Alberta, said archeological technology would be able to help find these missing graves.
However, there needs to be more of a coordinated effort before using it.
"I think putting as much of the decision-making process in the hands of Indigenous communities is really the way forward, but the resources need to be there for those communities to access," she said.
Supernant said archeological technology, such as a ground-penetrating radar, would help look below the surface and find grave locations without disrupting the ground.
"There are options for some communities that may be enough just to find the locations and to commemorate and to do ceremony and things with that. Others may wish to pursue other avenues where the actual graves could be dug up," she said.
"But I think we must only pursue those should the community wish."
Supernant added that there also needs to be a national strategy that ensures a set amount of protocols when applying these technologies to burial grounds.
"I think we really need to be attentive to take direction from communities that are ready and also respect that."
Support is available for anyone affected by residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
With files from Axel Tardieu.