'First step in reconciliation' as government hands over residential school cemetery

The grounds housing a cemetery where Indigenous children — who died while attending a Regina-area residential school — has been transferred from the federal government to a group sworn to protect the sacred land, more than 100 years after the school closed. 

Ottawa, RCMP mark transfer with ceremony outside Regina

Officials transferred ownership of grounds housing a cemetery — where some three dozen Indigenous children who died while attending a Regina residential school are buried — during a ceremony on Tuesday. (CBC News/Bonnie Allen)

The grounds housing a cemetery where some three dozen Indigenous children — who died while attending Regina's Indian Industrial School (RIIS) — are buried have been transferred from the federal government to a group sworn to protect the sacred land, more than 100 years after the residential school closed. 

MP Ralph Goodale, RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki and the RIIS Commemorative Association made the transfer official during a ceremony at the property outside of Regina on Tuesday.

Descendants of students, elders from surrounding First Nations along with provincial and municipal dignitaries took part in the commemorative ceremony, which included prayers, speeches and a drum circle. 

 The names of the First Nations from which students were taken were read aloud by children. 

"It's the start to a new era of reconciliation," said Sarah Longman, president of the RIIS Commemorative Association, the new owners.  

Longman said she would like to erect a memorial to the children who died and, more importantly, a tribute to their descendents to ensure people never forget the impact the school had on Canada's Indigenous population. 

Gaining ownership of the one-acre plot took years. 

"It's been a physical journey, it's been an emotional journey and it's been a very spiritual journey," Longman said. 

MP Ralph Goodale and the RCMP helped make the transfer possible. (CBC News)

The school, which opened in 1891 and closed in 1910, was operated by the Presbyterian Church of Canada through the Foreign Mission Committee, built on about 129 hectares of farm land on Wascana Creek, about six kilometres northwest of Regina.

Debbie Hill's grandparents went to the school. She said the gravesites are close to her heart because she knows the children buried there could have been their friends or relatives. 

"As a mother and as a grandmother, I can't imagine my children or grandchildren being buried without being recognized as to who they are or where they're buried," said Hill. 

The cemetery land was privately owned for decades. But in 2017, it was officially given heritage status by the province. That new designation protected the site from being altered, unless provincial and municipal approval was granted. 

"None of that is a substitute for outright ownership and the ability then to take the actions in and around the property to properly protect it," Goodale said. "This is a whole-of-society effort and wherever an opportunity presents itself to contribute to reconciliation, we should all be happy to participate."

A First Nations elder overlooks the cemetery, which houses at least 35 unmarked graves of Indigenous children. (CBC News)

Goodale and the RCMP worked together to come up with a unique solution. The RCMP owned an adjacent  piece of land. They arranged to swap an equal plot with the private landowner so that the cemetery and border around it could be transferred. 

"The RCMP have not a very good history in rounding up kids and putting them in residential school, my dad being one of them," said Hill. "For them to take this step, I think it's a very honourable and wonderful step to take." 

Children's toys are attached to a fence around the cemetery. (Glenn Reid/CBC)

According to the Saskatchewan government, the cemetery grounds contain the graves of about 35 children from First Nations and Métis communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.

The way the students died is not clear, and Longman said it's possible the truth may never be known.

"We know that there were illnesses, we know that there were abuses that took place, we know that there were many, many children with broken hearts," she said. "So it could be a combination of all three." 

Longman she plans to apply to have the property designated as a federal heritage status. 

Sarah Longman, president of RIIS Commemorative Association, said the transfer is one of the first steps in reconciliation. (CBC)