Future access to Battlefords residential school cemetery uncertain

A group of Grade 12 students will have access to a historic residential school cemetery site on private property near the Battlefords, but future field trips are still in the air.

Registrar of cemeteries says land owner has responsibility to provide reasonable access

The Battleford Industrial School Cemetery isn't a public place but in May, for the first time in 100 years, a small group was allowed access to the site. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

A group of Grade 12 students will have access to a historic residential school cemetery site on private property near the Battlefords, but future field trips are still in the air.

In May, for the first time, Indigenous elders, families and non-Indigenous community members were granted permission to visit the site.  

The Battleford Industrial School, open for approximately 30 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s, grew over those years from a dozen students to 100.

Most of the 74 people buried in the small cemetery are children. Others were associated with the school some other way.

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

Wayne Kopp, the owner of the now-private property where the cemetery is situated, lives in Alberta. For years he expressed worry about granting access to the site, citing a fear that people would destroy it, or party there.

Eleanore Sunchild, Benedict Feist, and Sherron Burns have been trying to increase public access to the newly-designated municipal heritage site for more than a year.

Burns, an educator with Living Sky School Division, sent an email to Kopp, asking for permission to bring Grade 12 students to the site a month ago.

"We don't want to cause problems, but we think we should have access and that should be reasonable," she said.

Burns said she spoke to Kopp on Monday, two days before the proposed field trip. He granted her group permission to visit the property, but was non-committal when it came to future visitors. Kopp declined to speak on the record for this story.

The path to the Battle River Industrial School cemetery is owned by local oblates, who have granted educational groups access to get to the cemetery. The process is somewhat easier.

"They like people to ask permission rather than just assuming you can go across their land, so you just go and knock on their door and talk to them," said Burns.

Seventy-four people were laid to rest in the cemetery in Battle River. Most were children. About 50 of the graves are marked. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Responsibility to grant 'reasonable access'

Burns, Feist and Sunchild made a case to the RM of Battle River in November, asking for a municipal heritage designation for the cemetery.

The RM proceeded with the designation, at first without the landowner's blessing.

Dozens gathered at the residential school cemetery near Battle River to smudge and remember the people buried there in May 2018. Future access to the site is uncertain. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

While the cemetery is not a public site, the public is entitled to some access.

"We take the position that if a body is interred, it's a cemetery and if it's a cemetery the property owner must allow reasonable public visitation," said Eric Greene, Saskatchewan's registrar of cemeteries.

According to the Cemeteries Act, the land owner has the right to decline visitation, but also has a responsibility to allow visitation. Greene decides what is "reasonable".

"For example, they could say you can visit between eight and five, or one hour before sunset, one hour after sunset kind of thing," he said

"We certainly would like to meet with him and try to work something out."

Greene said that if barriers to access continue, all parties involved would speak and he would try to broker an agreement.

In the meantime, Burns and her colleagues will continue to request permission, so even more people can visit and experience the cemetery.

"It's very powerful to be there on the land and try to imagine what it was like for the people living there prior," she said.

Burns said the cemetery could be integral to fostering reconciliation in the region.