On June 6 and 7, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will be holding public hearings at Red Deer College from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day. These hearings will deal with aboriginal issues in Canada and in particular, the legacy of the Indian residential school system.
While there were no First Nations reserves near Red Deer, the community did have an Indian residential school, just west of the City, for nearly 30 years.
Plans for an Indian residential/industrial school at Red Deer commenced in the early 1890s.
A Red Deer site fit in with the philosophy of the federal government. It was in the central part of the province. More importantly, since the idea was to educate native children in European culture and ways of living and to make a break with traditional cultures, sites were sought that were a substantial distance from reserves and close to a ‘white’ urban centre.
In 1893, construction began on a site on the north side of the Red Deer River, close to the original Red Deer Crossing settlement, where old Fort Normandeau had once been located. Initially, a two-and-a-half storey sandstone building was built to house the students and staff.
Meanwhile, an agreement was made with the Methodist Church to have it operate the school.
It was the first Methodist Indian industrial school in western Canada.
Unfortunately, as the school was opened, the federal government changed its formula for funding Indian industrial/residential schools. Instead of the government covering all the operational expenses, as well as the construction costs, a per capita grant system was implemented.
Right from the start, the per capita grants were lower than the costs of running the school. As time went on, the financial shortfalls got worse.
One immediate impact of the new and inadequate funding system was an inability to pay the salaries that were generally offered to teachers. These lower rates of pay made it difficult to attract qualified staff and also led to high staff turnover. Poor staff morale was a continuous problem.
With all the students and staff crammed into one building, overcrowding was a serious issue. Moreover, the school’s sanitation system was poor. The drains often plugged. Sewage frequently contaminated the school’s well.
Consequently, there were frequent outbreaks of disease in the school including scarlet fever, meningitis, mumps, measles, and tuberculosis. There was even a brief outbreak of smallpox. The death rates among both students and staff were high.
According to the official school register, more than one-third of the students enrolled in the first two years of the school’s operation died prematurely. Dr. P.H. Bryce later wrote that of all the Indian industrial schools he examined, Red Deer had the worst mortality rate.
Overcrowding was eased somewhat in 1897 with the construction of a second student residence. Small cottages were built for staff as well as a number of small instructional and farm buildings.
Nevertheless, conditions at the school remained poor. Enrolments at the school declined sharply. Parents began to adamantly refuse to send their children to a school with such a high rate of illness and death. The Department of Indian Affairs attempts to increase coercion failed in the face of this determined opposition.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 made finances even more inadequate. Older students and some staff members left to enlist for service overseas.
Eventually, the school became bankrupt and the buildings fell into disrepair. The school finally closed in September 1919. The remaining students were either sent home or transferred to other schools.
On June 8, starting at 11 a.m., the Remembering The Children Society will be holding special ceremonies and a commemorative feast to remember the 350 students who attended the Red Deer Indian Industrial School and the tragic number who are buried in the old school cemetery. The public is welcome to attend this event as well as the hearings at Red Deer College on June 6 and 7.