'We're not done': Search for answers at Regina Indian Industrial School continues

"We need to start by honouring those voices and those stories," said the head of the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association.

Sask. organization continues work as Canada grapples with discovery of unmarked burial site in B.C.

The cemetery at the site of the former Regina Indian Industrial School is seen on June 1, 2021. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Sarah Longman was left in shock after last week's announcement by British Columbia's Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of an unmarked burial site at the Kamloops Indian Residential School believed to contain the remains of 215 children.

"There's just no way that you can ever be prepared to hear something of that magnitude," she said Monday. 

Longman is the president of the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association, an organization dedicated to caring for a cemetery that stands as one of the few remaining physical markers of the residential school that once operated just outside of Saskatchewan's capital city. 

Sarah Longman, the president of the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association, speaks with CBC in 2019. (CBC)

It did not take long for Longman's sense of shock and numbness to be replaced. 

"There's a deep grief. The pain rises to the top and it surfaces and it's there and [I'm] still carrying it and it's still quite a heavy heart today," she said.

As Canada grapples with the legacy of its residential school system, Longman is urging policymakers and researchers to listen to voices in their communities that are familiar with the schools and what happened at them. 

"A lot of our people will talk about hearing the stories of different places where there was a burial site, remembering these places. We need to start by honouring those voices and those stories," she said.

LISTEN | Sarah Longman speaks with host Peter Mills on CBC Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition:

What is Ottawa doing about the legacy of residential schools?

2 years ago
Duration 2:42
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett talks to Adrienne Arsenault about the federal government’s plans to address the legacy of residential schools after children’s remains were found by a B.C. First Nation.

The Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association has incorporated the stories of descendants who lived at the school into its research. 

In 2012, the organization began to use ground-penetrating radar around the area of a single headstone in the cemetery to detect man-made disturbances, which can be an indication of graves. 

The headstone belongs to the child of a former employee of the school, according to Longman.

A single grave marker is seen at the cemetery of the former Regina Indian Industrial School near Pense, Sask., on June 1, 2021. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

Subsequent searches forced the group to extend the fence bordering the cemetery as they continued detecting more disturbances.

Longman said they've been able to confirm at least 35 unmarked graves, although it is nearly impossible to confirm how many people are buried in the cemetery due to the historical practice of stacking graves. 

Although the association has been able to identify the names of some children who died at the school, the remains buried in the cemetery are not necessarily theirs. 

"That has been an absolute incredible journey in so many ways and we're not done," she said. 

'Collective history that we all need to learn'

The Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) opened in 1891, operating on approximately 129 hectares of farmland on Wascana Creek, about six kilometres northwest of Regina.

It was operated by the Presbyterian Church of Canada through the Foreign Mission Committee before being closed in 1910. 

The school building was later destroyed by fire in 1948.

All that remains on what was once the grounds is the graveyard where at least 35 Indigenous children — all of whom died while attending the school — are buried. 

It's not clear how the children died, but the association says it has been confirmed that they came from First Nations and Métis communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.

After years of work, the association acquired a 0.4-hectare plot from the federal government in 2019

WATCH | What is Ottawa doing about the legacy of residential schools?

On Monday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the legacy of residential schools is one of the greatest stains in the nation's history and that everyone should learn about it. 

"Educate yourself about what our history is when it comes to the good and the bad, when it comes to the residential schools," he said. 

Longman echoed that statement. She said that non-Indigenous Canadians must examine their understanding of their country's history. 

"This is not about guilt in people. This is about we have a history here, a collective history that we all need to learn and we all need to understand exists and is real," Longman said. 

Search for answers deeply personal

As calls to search for graves at the sites of all residential schools grow louder, Longman said the search for answers is deeply personal for many members of her organization who are descendants of residential school survivors. 

The organization has received many inquiries asking for support and ideas, and wanting to learn about its research. 

Longman admitted she feels unprepared to provide support for so many people, but said she wants to be responsive to the needs of her community. 

"There's been a lot of stops and starts in our journey with our residential school. And we're not quite where we want to be, but we're certainly further along, I guess, than some of the other folks that are just starting," Longman said. 

"So we're more than happy to share our experiences with others."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of 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.

With files from CBC's Jessie Anton