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Roads to reconciliation

Dozens died at Red Deer’s residential school. A group of Albertans finds their graves and honours their spirits.

By Evie Ruddy


Two incidents stuck in the back of Lyle Keewatin Richards’s mind for a long time.

In 1987, Keewatin Richards, who is Cree, was working at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery in Alberta. One day, a non-Indigenous man named Doug Moore brought in a handful of grave markers he’d found on his property. The weathered two-by-six wooden planks had marked the burial sites of students who’d died at the Red Deer Industrial Institute — a Methodist-run residential school that operated from 1893 to 1919. Moore wanted to donate them, but museum officials declined, saying the markers should remain with the graves.

A week later, a Cree man named Albert Lightning came into the museum asking about the location of his brother’s remains. David Lightning had died in 1918 while attending the Red Deer residential school. “I searched around,” recalls Keewatin Richards. “And sure enough, he was buried, along with three other kids, in a grave up at the city cemetery during the Spanish flu epidemic.”

One man with grave markers; another man looking for a grave. “I didn’t really know what to do with this information,” Keewatin Richards recalls.

Nearly two decades later, Keewatin Richards — by then a well-known social justice activist in Red Deer — was invited to speak to members of Sunnybrook United. At the end of his presentation, he asked the congregation to help him investigate the cemetery and the children buried there.

The members formed a committee and soon confirmed that a cemetery had been established, likely in the 1890s, on the banks of a creek near the school.

“Most people around here had no idea the cemetery was there,” says committee member Don Hepburn.

Photo courtesy of the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery
Photo courtesy of the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery

The committee also learned that the school had one of the worst mortality rates for residential schools at the time. In 26 years of operation, at least 45 of its students died from tuberculosis, influenza and other illnesses, often as a result of overcrowding, poor ventilation and insufficient heating. In a letter written to the federal minister of the interior in 1903, an incoming principal wrote, “A glance at the buildings and the sight of the ragged, unkempt and sickly looking children was sufficient to make me sick at heart.”

An archeological survey of the site in 2008 concluded that as many as 65 people could be buried there.

Sunnybrook committee members, along with First Nations and Métis people, formed a new group and held a series of feasts to help bring peace to the spirits of the deceased students. They also retrieved the grave markers from the Moore family and placed them in the Red Deer Museum.

More recently, the group, now called the Remembering the Children Society, has turned its focus to four children who are buried in the Red Deer cemetery.

David Lightning, Jane Baptiste, Georgina House and Sarah Soosay all died of the Spanish flu over two days in November 1918. At the time, school staff members also had the flu and were too sick to bury the students in the school cemetery. So they hired an undertaker, who buried them in Red Deer’s city cemetery — two to a grave and without a marker. “They’re surrounded by the usual granite markers,” says Hepburn, “but nothing was ever put up to show where the four students were buried.”

This month, the society will erect a monument, largely funded by United Church congregations, on these graves. It will include the children’s names and biographical information, as well as a brief history of the Red Deer Industrial Institute.

“The monument is a positive step forward,” says Richard Lightning, who is David Lightning’s nephew and the interim president of the Remembering the Children Society. “People have to be educated on this whole issue of residential schools. It’s a key piece to resolving what happened to the children.”

Evie Ruddy is a journalist in Regina.



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