A special commemoration took place last week as First Nations Elders, students, various City council members and Mayor Tara Veer came together to announce the opening of new exhibits at Fort Normandeau.
The exhibit honours the children who died while living within residential/industrial schools – a dark and cruel system put in place across Canada many years ago aimed to assimilate First Nations communities into European Christian cultures.
“I myself am really happy. I think it’s a very appropriate place because this has become a really important place for people to come and do their healing,” said First Nations Elder Theresa Larson Jonasson, of the Red Deer Native Friendship Centre.
“With the traditional sweat lodge here, we’re seeing and talking to a lot of people that have experienced the effects of residential schools way more than people imagine. That this exhibit is here, I think is very appropriate.”
Veer read out a proclamation of remembrance, apology and recognition in honour of the children who died while a part of the Red Deer Industrial School, closed in 1919.
The reading proclaimed, “To research missing children and unmarked burials. To commemorate and remember the children who attended Indian Residential Schools in Alberta, and who died as part of this system.”
Along with these values, June 13th will be known in Red Deer as ‘Remember the Children Day’ in honour of those young lives lost and generations affected by the unjust practices of the schools.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to happen. It’s just going to keep on going and going, now that we have lots of community involvement, not only from First Nations, but from all peoples coming together,” said Lynn Jonasson of Safe Harbour Society and Parkland Youth Homes and also a community Elder.
Community members present included a group of seventh graders who spent the afternoon with local Elders learning about residential schools and their devastating affects for generations to come.
Many members of First Nations groups were also present, and to each person, the ceremony and exhibit represented something different.
For Lyle Keewatin Richards, the ceremony was filled with emotional warrant. He was instrumental in the discovery of a mass grave of residential school students, after Cree Elder Albert Lightning asked him to find his younger brother who had died in 1919 and was found buried in an unmarked grave with three other children.
“He basically started this for me. Not only did I find his brother but I found the rest of them. That’s where this started, and now this is where it comes together today,” said Keewatin Richards. “It’s hugely emotional and I didn’t realize it would be – especially with the kids here. To me, these kids are here and learning, but they get to go home. And those kids (of the industrial school) didn’t get to go home.”
The exhibit includes both indoor and outdoor portions. The outdoor consists of a telescope showing citizens where the old industrial school stood, with information boards placed near the site. Indoors offers a glance at aboriginal culture and lifestyle is laid out in an interactive format.