Newly granted access to residential school cemetery holds deep meaning for Battleford event organizers

As dozens of people crossed a field of high grass toward the final resting place for at least 50 residential school children, the event name used by organizers, “walk for reconciliation,” felt more than symbolic.

It’s the first time some elders and young children have been able to visit the site where their ancestors may have been buried.

“I know some of our immediate neighbours to the north, the Cochin area, what I’ve heard is that some of these sites have been plowed and the oral history has been lost,” said Aaron Albert of Sweetgrass First Nation.

“Now the areas are being recognized and there’s a better understanding as to a part of us.”

Dozens gathered at the residential school cemetery near Battle River to smudge and remember the people buried there. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found approximately 6,000 children died in Canada’s residential schools, but some experts believe the number to be higher.

The Battleford Industrial School cemetery may hold information that could help Canadians better understand what exactly happened at one of the institutions — so long as public groups have access to it.

The cemetery is on what is now private property, owned by a man living in Alberta. For almost a year, he prohibited the small group of citizens pushing for access from stepping foot on the property.

The land owner worried people would party at the site, or destroy it.

It’s a step to understanding more of each other and one another, and creating that harmony– Aaron Albert, Sweetgrass First Nation

“He was never absolutely opposed to people ever coming up here, but recently he just thought about it, I think, a little more and gave permission for people to come up here when it’s part of an educational or community visit,” said Benedict Feist, one of the people behind the project.

Not forgotten

The Battleford Industrial School was open from 1883-1914 and started with just a dozen students.

When the school closed, it was taking at least 100 students every year. In 1914, the school’s principal wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs to express concern about the cemetery outside.

He wrote he was worried about the site not being marked appropriately and wondered if people would forget about it.

It almost happened.

Seventy-four people were laid to rest in the cemetery in Battle River. Most of those are children. About 50 of the graves are marked. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)Municipal heritage designation almost didn’t come. After months of negotiation, the landowner filed an objection to the designation.

Then the RM of Battle River went ahead anyway.

“It connects people to this physical place which was the first Department of Indian Affairs Residential school in Canada and the cemetery associated with it,” said Feist.

The site has been cared for over the years by various historical groups and individuals, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Now, families may be able to take over the upkeep and perform traditional ceremonies.

“Annually there’s a gathering, a feast that is done for loved ones that passed on. In that sense it brings a connection that is never really lost,” Albert said.

He said he believes the landowner’s change of heart and increased access to the site brings the area one step closer to the idea of reconciliation.

“It’s a step to understanding more of each other and one another, and creating that harmony,” he said.

Aaron Albert, of Sweetgrass First Nation, says nearby Indigenous burial grounds have been plowed and lost forever. He’s pleased the residential school students will be remembered. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)Feist said he and his small group of coordinators plan to build on their forward momentum and eventually push for provincial heritage designation.

He said the cemetery’s story isn’t over, yet.

“We’ve had some contact from people that share last names with people that are named on the cairn here. That’s been quite sad and quite interesting to learn that local history,” said Feist.

“Connecting people to that heritage from their family and communities is a good thing that has come out of this project.”

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