Four wooden grave headboards were recently carried through City streets by grandchildren of students from the Red Deer Industrial School.
The headboards, rotted and fallen in their places, once marked the graves of four people who died at the school and were buried in the school’s cemetery on the banks of Sylvan Creek, west of Red Deer.
The markers, with a few letters and dates, have been stored in a private garage until now.
The four grandchildren Adriana DuVal, Mari Marcellus, Rhett McLeod and Tallon Lightning were accompanied by drumming and singing, elders, First Nations and Metis family and community members, chiefs, Mayor Morris Flewwelling, United Church officials and the Remembering the Children Working Group during the Remembering the Children commemoration ceremony, which was held last week.
“The significance of this ceremony is to commemorate, recover and preserve the unmarked burial site that was associated with the Red Deer Industrial School,” said Eric Large, residential school coordinator in the Saddle Lake Cree Nation as well as one of the organizers of the ceremony held in Red Deer. “It’s very special to have the grandchildren carry these headboards. Some of them are descendants of up to 350 students that have been identified that went to the school. It’s only fitting that the children here today are carrying the headboards.”
The Red Deer Industrial School was built by the federal government and was located in Red Deer County from 1893 to 1919 by the Methodist Church under an agreement with the government. A cemetery in conjunction with the school was established in about 1893 nearby on the banks of Sylvan Creek.
In 2005, the Sunnybrook United Church in Red Deer realized that this cemetery was unrecognized and uncared for. A group from the congregation decided to do research, collect information and pursue getting the cemetery recognized and marked as a way to live out the United Church apologies. They found that the school principal’s house and school foundations still exist.
Students from the First Nations of Saddle Lake, Whitefish Lake, Paul Band, Samson, Louis Bull, Montana, Morley and Nelson House as well as Manitoba and Metis attended the school. Three hundred and nineteen names of the children are recorded with their year of registration up to 1914 with the last five years not fully known.
At the commemoration ceremony held in Red Deer last week Brian Lee, First Nations chief said the preservation of the headboards is the first step in healing.
“I feel bad that these children didn’t get to have a proper burial.”
MLA for Red Deer south Cal Dallas also addressed those in attendance at the ceremony.
“On June 11, 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada, the prime minister made an apology to former students of the Indian Residential Schools,” he said. “The Government of Alberta believes it is important that all students learn about the history of residential schools and about other First Nations, Metis and Aboriginal topics. That’s why Aboriginal issues are part of the Alberta school curriculum and why events like today are so important to help fill in that history with education.
“It’s fitting that we gather here in a City that sits on the borders of Traditional Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 lands because today’s ceremony marks the shared concerns for history and healing that crosses boarders and cultures.”
Lorna Johnson, executive director of the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery received the headboards, which will be on display for a while before being placed in storage.