Battlefords man working to preserve residential school cemetery

A lawyer in North Battleford is determined to give residential school students who died in the area the burial they deserve.

Cemetery at Battleford Industrial School has at least 20 unmarked graves

Annual sport day at the school in 1895. (Archives of Canada.)

A lawyer in North Battleford is determined to give residential school students who died in the area the burial they deserve.

Speaking on CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition on Tuesday, Ben Feist said he attended a Law Society of Saskatchewan event in Saskatoon discussing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) calls to action and final report.

He started looking into their paperwork and realized one of the items listed had to do with missing children and unmarked burials.

In that section, the TRC specifically referenced the cemetery at the Battleford Industrial School, which was open in the area from 1883-1914.

Students of the Battleford Industrial School. (Archives of Canada)

In 1883, before Saskatchewan became a province, it was part of the Northwest Territories. In that year, the capital of the Northwest Territories was moved from Battleford to Regina. The school took over the building that was once the seat of the territorial government.

When it opened, Battleford Industrial School took around a dozen students. After the Riel Resistance, there were at least 100 students each year.

The cemetery associated with the school was opened in 1884. Feist said the Saskatchewan Herald referenced the need for it at the time, naming students who had died there earlier.

A cairn erected at the Battleford Industrial School was placed at the cemetery in 1975 after a total of 72 graves were excavated at the school by Archaeology students and staff from the University of Saskatchewan during the summer of 1974. (Ben Feist)

When the school closed in 1914, the principal of the school at that time wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs and expressed concerns about it not being appropriately marked and the possibility that people would forget about it.

According to Feist, that's exactly what happened. It wasn't until the 1970s that excavation was done at the site by the department of anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan.

"They actually excavated the site and found 74 people buried there and they were only able to identify about 50 of the student's names who were buried at that cemetery," said Feist.

At that time, Fiest said a rededication of the site was put up with a small cairn and fences circling the property.

"From the early 1970s until now, it's kind of again not really known about widely in the community," he said.

After researching the site, Feist teamed up with Eleanore Sunchild, Sharon Burns and First Nations communities in the area. He organized a public information session in the city, getting people together to raise awareness and collect knowledge on the topic.

A numbered grave marker at the Battleford Industrial School which was placed in 1975. These numbers may correspond to field notes from the archaeological exhumation conducted at the site. (Ben Feist)

Longtime members of the Battlefords' Historical Society, Indigenous community leaders, city councillors and concerned citizens all showed up to the information session.

Feist wants to guarantee preservation, protection and accessibility of this and other residential school cemeteries in the Battlefords area.

With hopes of appropriately honouring the victims, Feist said he wants to ensure local First Nations communities and residential school survivors lead the movement.

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With files from CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition