Red Deer Industrial School Monument Unveiled

During the past three weeks the Spanish influenza has swept through this institution. I regret to report that as a result, five of our pupils are dead: Georgina House, Jane Baptiste, Sarah Soosay, David Lightning, William Cardinal…At the time the children died practically everyone was sick so that it was impossible for us to bury the dead. I thought the best thing to do was to have the undertaker from Red Deer take charge of and bury the bodies. This was done, and they now lie buried in Red Deer.”

These words, written by then-Principal Joseph F. Woodsworth to the department of Indian Affairs, now also appear in the Red Deer City Cemetery, on a monument commemorating the lives of four of the five young men and women who passed away on November 15 and 16, 1918, while attending Red Deer Industrial School[1]. Until now, their names and resting places within the Red Deer City Cemetery had remained largely unmarked and their stories untold.

Red Deer Industrial School opened in 1893, reflecting the federal government’s growing emphasis on education as one of the primary means of attempting to control, regulate and assimilate Indigenous Peoples. Operated from 1893 to 1919 by the Methodist Church, Red Deer Industrial School quickly gained notoriety within the larger residential and industrial school system for its abysmal health conditions and high mortality rates. The biggest crisis faced by the school came during the 1918-19 Spanish influenza epidemic, when Principal Reverend Joseph Woodworth wrote: “For sickness, conditions at this school are nothing less than criminal.”

The names and lives of Georgina, Jane, Sarah, David and William are a reflection of the horrific experiences suffered and endured by children who attended Red Deer Industrial School. However, their names and stories form only a small piece of a much larger picture of lives lost.

Red Deer Industrial School, C. 1905 (Image Credit: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta Libraries, Prairie Postcards, 4711).

On September 28, 2017, Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members gathered in Red Deer to unveil a new monument in the Red Deer City Cemetery, an initiative spearheaded by the Remembering the Children Society. The Society is a collaborative group with representation from numerous First Nations, the Metis Nation of Alberta, the United Church of Canada and concerned and interested citizens.

The unveiling of the monument began with a morning pipe ceremony in the Red Deer City Cemetery, led by Elders from neighbouring First Nations. A formal program followed, which included speeches and presentations by numerous Elders, knowledge-keepers and dignitaries, including Dr. Wilton Littlechild, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner. Remembering the Children Society members Lyle Keewatin Richards and Don Hepburn, with Society President Richard Lightning (nephew of the late David Lightning), explained how their research efforts led to the re-identification of the Red Deer Industrial School cemetery, and how the relationships they foster with Indigenous communities, landowners and governments have aided in the continued documentation and protection of the site.

Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six and TRC Commissioner, Dr. Wilton Littlechild, addresses the crowd during the formal program.

Additional presenters included the Big Voice Drummers, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation archivist Raymond Frogner, President and CEO of Canadians for a New Partnership Stephen Kakfwi, TRC Honorary Witness Morris Flewwelling and Reverend Shannon McCarthy with the United Church of Canada. Their words echoed the sentiments of Senator Murray Sinclair: reconciliation is not an Indigenous problem. It is a Canadian problem, and we each have a role to play in recognizing the dark truths of the past, and in moving forward in better ways.

The Big Voice Drummers finish a victory song as the monument is unveiled in the Red Deer City Cemetery.

The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation (AHRF) provided $10,000 to support the monument’s design, fabrication and installation. Dr. Laurel Halladay, AHRF Chair, has provided the following words to describe the importance of the initiative and the Board’s desire to support the project:

“The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation was so pleased we could help fund this memorial stone project. Our commitment to reconciliation, in this case via investment in heritage awareness surrounding the province’s residential schools and their associated cemeteries, is an ongoing motivation of the Foundation’s work.

 The memorial stone project was an initiative that came from the community, which said clearly and loudly it wanted the experiences of Sarah Soosay, David Lightning, Jane Baptiste, and Georgina House in the Red Deer Industrial School memorialized. The Remembering the Children Society, the City of Red Deer, various churches, and the Metis Nation, among others, should really be praised for what they’ve accomplished.

 The memorial stone is a physical representation of the spirit of collaboration, and what can be achieved when several individuals and groups share the same goal of reconciliation. The stone marker symbolizes several important stories, including the early 20th century history of central Alberta, the Spanish Flu epidemic in western Canada, and how educational institutions operated a hundred years ago.

 However, most importantly, it marks the final resting place of four First Nations children who died far from their families and didn’t return home. The history behind that doesn’t make for a pleasant story but it’s one that needs telling.”

Both the Historic Resources Management Branch and the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation are committed to assisting Survivors, Survivor groups, Nations and communities in the identification, preservation and commemoration of residential school sites, cemeteries and stories. We are working to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, particularly those regarding missing children and burial information. If you would like more information about these efforts, please contact the Aboriginal Heritage Section. We are grateful to, and encouraged by, groups like the Remembering the Children Society, who inspire and challenge us to use our mandate of protecting, preserving and presenting Alberta’s history to further reconciliation in this province.

Written By: Laura Golebiowski (Aboriginal Consultation Adviser) and Allan Rowe (Historic Places Research Officer)

[1] William Cardinal died while attempting to run away from Red Deer Industrial School. His body was found and taken to his home community of Saddle Lake for burial.

Title Image: Richard Lightning, nephew of the late David Lightning and President of the Remembering the Children Society, is interviewed by the press beside the new monument.

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