November 17, 2016.
It’s heartbreaking work, but families need to know where their children, who died attending Indian residential schools, are buried.
“It’s about bringing closure for families,” said Charles Wood, chair of the Remembering the Children Society. “Who knows what the numbers are from the residential schools across the nation, how many children never made it home.”
One of the first acts of the society was a ceremony in 2010 at the cemetery attached to the Red Deer industrial school. The school, operated by the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church from 1893-1919, had one of the highest child mortality rates for Indian residential schools. Metis and First Nations students attended from Manitoba and Alberta. They were hit by the Spanish flu epidemic and an outbreak of chickenpox. It is this situation that prompted the United Church General Council and Sunnybrook United Church to form the Remembering the Children Society. The cemetery, which now stands on privately-owned land, has 20 grave depressions or outlines although there may be as many as 50 burials at the site.
The United Church, and its predecessors the Methodists and Presbyterians, operated up to 16 residential schools. Rev. Cecile Fausak, who serves in the national position as one of two reconciliation and Indigenous justice animators with the United Church, says her research has led her to believe that five of those residential schools had cemeteries attached to them. The Red Deer industrial school is the only one in Alberta.
“One of the things I’ve just been overwhelmed by is that when people find out what happened to their children and the strengthening of the family ties through all of that, that the grieving process gets unstuck,” said Fausak, who resides in Athabasca.
“People know that ceremony is important but it’s hard to say how that really functions within us for healing, but I’ve seen a lot of healing happen as we’ve uncovered more names, more sort of stories and information on how children died,” she said.
An online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children, as well as “develop(ing) and implement(ing) strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried” are among the six calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in relation to missing children and burial information.
“We are continuing to respond to the TRC‘s calls to action, the call for collaboration with all the parties to continue to do the research and commemoration,” said Fausak.
The United Church of Canada is one of four church signatories to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. Also signing the agreement were the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, and the Catholic Entities.
Wood holds that of all the apologies that were delivered to Indian residential school survivors – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008 – it is the efforts of the United Church he commends.
“I think the United Church are the ones that are following up on what they have said in their apologies,” he said.
Wood attended Blue Quills residential school, from 1946-1952, operated by the Catholic church.
The Remembering the Children Society does have representation from the Anglican Church.
“We’ve had a tougher time getting other churches involved. It’s difficult work and the cemeteries are unmarked … somebody really has to have a passion to do the research,” said Fausak.
“It’s hard to say what’s more important, but I really see people putting the emphasis on … how children are living in poverty in Canada (now) and that’s where we want to put our efforts as well…. You’ve only got so much time and resources and where are you going to put them,” she said.
The TRC does call upon the churches to play an active role in reconciliation.
The Remembering the Children Society are hearing from representatives with Alberta Culture and Tourism about the work that will be undertaken to retrieve information on missing children. Valerie Knaga and Laura Golebiowski will be speaking at the sixth annual general meeting for the society on Nov. 18 about “starting research into the bigger picture,” said Fausak.
Also, notes Fausak, work is underway to put a monument in the Red Deer city cemetery, where four First Nations students from the industrial school are buried. They died from the Spanish influenza in 1918. Descendants from only one of the four children have been identified. Fausak is confident that eventually all the descendants will be found.