The grounds housing a cemetery where some three dozen Indigenous children who died while attending Regina’s Indian Industrial School (RIIS) are buried will soon be transferred from the federal government to a group sworn to protect the sacred land, more than 100 years after the residential school closed.
On Tuesday, officials from Ottawa, the RCMP and the RIIS Commemorative Association will meet in Regina to transfer the land.
“This big event that’s happening is the first step in reconciliation,” said Sarah Longman, president of the RIIS Commemorative Association.
She said that once the transfer is completed, 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.
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.
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 is granted.
That is when the RCMP stepped in. The RCMP owned a piece a land adjacent to the cemetery. They arranged what essentially amounted to a land swap with the private land owner, paving the way for the land transfer to the RIIS Commemorative Association.
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.
“Sometimes people will forget that. They’ll look at the historical piece and they’ll think of the dates 1891, and they’ll think: ‘Oh my gosh, that was way before I was born.’ But they’ll forget these children had family members. They were not isolated children,” said Longman.
She said descendants of the student will attend Tuesday’s ceremony.
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.”
Tuesday’s event will mark the official transfer of the land, but Longman said her group is working with elders, community members and tribal leaders to take part in a commemorative ceremony at the site.
Longman said she wants to see the site gain further heritage status. The cemetery was recognized as a provincial heritage site in 2017, but she would like it designated as a federal heritage site as well.
After the school closed, the building became a jail and later a home for “delinquent boys,” according to the province. It was destroyed by a fire in 1948.
Tuesday’s ceremony is set to start at 1:30 p.m. CST.