‘What needs to be happening;’ residential school cemetery gets heritage status
Published on: October 3, 2016 | Last Updated: October 3, 2016 7:31 AM CST
REGINA — Along a dusty gravel road on the edge of Regina is a small plot of land surrounded by a rail fence with peeling white paint, weathered teddy bears, flowers and a couple of dream catchers.
There’s just one headstone in the 680-square-metre cemetery for the two children of Rev. A.J. McLeod, the first principal of the Regina Indian Industrial School, belying that dozens of indigenous children from the school are buried there too.
“It’s easy to overlook the cemetery itself. Even when I first came out here, we drove right by,” said Janine Windolph, president of the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association.
“The site needs to take another step further in basically acknowledging the students that are here and how we can start making it more apparent that this is a scared site for gathering. That’ll all come in time.”
A big step came Sept. 26, when Regina city council voted unanimously to grant the site municipal heritage status. Civic administrators suggested the move after a 2014 land survey found there were potentially 22 to 40 unmarked graves of children in the cemetery.
Windolph said an archeologist for the association identified 36 anomalies, but she said there could be many more children because it was practice at the time to bury several together.
Sakimay First Nations Chief Lynn Acoose, whose grandmother attended the Regina Indian Industrial School, said the heritage designation process has been emotional.
“It’s not only about preserving the memory. It’s not only about preserving the site and the graves. We need to also, from this tragedy, create something powerful and good out of the loss of these children,” said Acoose.
The Regina Indian Industrial School operated between 1891 and 1910. An unknown number of students died there.
Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has estimated at least 6,000 children died at residential schools but it’s impossible to say with certainty.
The federal government stopped recording the deaths around 1920 after the chief medical officer at Indian Affairs suggested children were dying at an alarming rate.
Residential schools were often crowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary. Children died from smallpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis. Some were buried in unmarked graves in school cemeteries, while others were listed as “missing” or “discharged.” In some cases, parents never found out what happened.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s offices are now closed and the work has been transferred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
Centre director Ry Moran said the designation in Regina “is just exactly what needs to be happening.”
“It means that one city in particular has really stepped up and honoured the children that are buried in that cemetery,” said Moran.
“And sadly, across this country, there are many, many, many other locations exactly like the one in Regina. So the fact that we’re seeing the city designate this site as a commemorative site, really I think can help encourage other cities and other jurisdictions to take a real hard look at this work that needs to happen across the country.”
Moran said preliminary estimates suggest there could be around 400 burial sites across the country directly associated with a residential school or where residential school children are likely were buried.
He said the centre recently looked at the cemetery associated with the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.
“That’s a really good example of a site where we know there’s kids buried there, but it’s heavily overgrown,” said Moran.
“We know that there’s graves likely outside of the cemetery as well, and that’s just one of many examples of a cemetery that’s really been forgotten and a critical part of our history being ignored and disrespected, truthfully.”
The work is not done for Windolph. She would also like to see the Regina cemetery get provincial heritage designation.
She said it marks a pivotal point in history — the time where cultural and identity loss began.
Early in her artist residency at the University of Regina, Daya Madhur was invited to support the preservice education students on their professional development field trip to Fort Qu’Appelle where the history and beauty of the valley inspired her creative journey.
“As I reflected upon the landscape I often sought to personify the hills and question what they have seen and heard. When creating this performance piece I wanted to portray the complexity of the residential school experience in Lebret and Fort Qu’Appelle. Throughout the creation process I visualized layers as seen from my perspective, historic documents, the students’ lived experiences, and Elder Starblanket’s narrative, soundscape recordings of the river valley, movement, and even the narrative told through the fabric in the dance. My heart lies in the interdisciplinary and I wanted to include all aspects of the fine arts in this project. The initial performance consisted of a dance/drama piece that interacted with the narratives and projected images.”
The video below is a curated adaptation of the performance piece performed on April 14, 2016 at the Walking Together: Day of Education for Truth and Reconciliation hosted by the Faculty of Education, University of Regina and the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).”
When I was a young child, I remember walking (nonchalantly) into the bathroom of our old house where my father was taking a bath. Everything initially seemed normal, except I noticed a scar that didn’t look normal. I asked him what it was from. He told me, in a gentle enough way to reflect my age, that he got it while he was at school. He told me that schools back then were not very kind, and that he had been hurt there. We agreed that this wasn’t nice, and I remember feeling happy that my teachers at daycare didn’t give me scars.
After an education in political studies and developing a strong interest in indigenous issues in Canada, I know much more than I did as a child. I am cognizant of the fact that within the residential school system there was widespread abuse, several spectrum’s worth at times. I am lucky that I did not have to live through that and I feel empathy for those people who did and who are still struggling with the resultant effects. We as a nation are still coming to terms with our history.
Nicholas Flood Davin founded the Regina Leader newspaper that detailed reports of Louis Riel’s’ trial. He was also a Member of Parliament, a war correspondent in England and lawyer. He also authored in 1879 what has come to be known as the Davin Report; a “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half Breeds,” stating that, among other things, “little can be done” with adult Indians. This followed on the heels of the adoption of the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act and the 1876 Indian Act by what was eventually Canada.
To be fair, Davin lived a varied life, and had a great effect on the West and invariably the country, for good and bad reasons. However, one of his most influential actions was that he wrote a report on the effectiveness of industrial schools and the ineffectiveness of day schools for the federal government.
The concern raised by Tom Richards (April 18 column) is that this may be a case of “presentism” in play. Having views accepted by one’s contemporaries does not mean those views are either righteous or justifiable. We should not continue to celebrate a co-author of the pain and suffering implemented through the residential school system. We now realize the extent of the damage that has been done and the long-term effects that plague too many indigenous people. We have had the time and the opportunity to study it, at the expense of affected indigenous lives.
The fact that racism was a prevalent view in the 1800s does not excuse Davin’s actions that furthered the mechanisms of pain and hardship for indigenous peoples. He may have laid the groundwork for part of the West to expand, but if we take the indigenous perspective into account, he also laid the intellectual groundwork for Canada to dispossess indigenous lands from indigenous groups. To attempt to kill the Indian within the child. To disappear us.
This is not to say that we should scour historical figures from our textbooks when our morality strays from theirs. Accomplishments should be appropriately credited, atrocities should not. We are starting to have this difficult discussion around the historical figures that raised Canada on indigenous land. John A. MacDonald is no less contentious a figure, and of course we would not want to erase him from our history, but I don’t want to defend the actions of old dead men simply to preserve their name. We know more as time passes, we change our understandings to reflect that. There is no concern of improperly understanding the past here — we know that the time since gone was generally racist.
If we take the indigenous perspective into account, evaluating the past through a modern prism is not something that should be feared; it’s the way indigenous peoples pass down information and have done for thousands of years. We educate our children through stories. We use them to convey our histories and our discoveries and understandings of the world as we see it. We adapt our perspectives in times of change and reinterpret our worldview to reflect the changing world. The actions and follies of our past guide us as indigenous peoples in making our choices and plans for the future. The reinterpretation of these understandings is what keep traditional knowledge from stagnating. They keep societies alive and allow them to thrive in the face of adversity.
On Davin’s other ventures there is room for discussion as to his contributions to Canada, but on the subject of residential schools we cannot justify his actions in the name of preserving history, to say nothing about preserving the name of a school. Davin’s report is a contributing factor to the government policies that caused the hardship that we as indigenous peoples have at preserving our histories. We have had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission release both its calls to action and its final report in the last year. We have seen forward movement from the University of Saskatchewan in working towards supporting the aims and goals of the TRC.
If we deny the opportunity for a small, but meaningful, change in the name of a public building, we are not even paying lip service to the principles that have been guiding us through what has proven to be a difficult conversation. Renaming Davin school in Regina would not take away the past decades of its name the same way that the actions we take today will not rewrite the violent and colonial history that bestowed the residential school system upon us as indigenous peoples, to say nothing of the contributions provided by the Davin report. They would simply reflect the changing societal values within the nation they helped build. When we name things, what do we name them for? If we named this school today, knowing what we do, would we still choose the name Davin?
As Richards so correctly quoted Mary Beard, a British public intellectual, “it is our job to get off our backsides and do better.” Renaming the school to something that recognizes the nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and its indigenous peoples will still allow for the discussion of the residential school legacy in Canada, and its beginnings, without damaging our historical perspective. Rather, it will take us closer towards truth, and in turn reconciliation.
We as a nation no longer want to kill the Indian in the child; we want to include them. To repair what has been damaged.
Leon Thompson is an intergenerational residential school survivor, incoming president of the Aboriginal Law Students Association, and nehiyaw (Cree) law student at the University of Saskatchewan.
Dr. Marc Spooner and Dr. Shauneen Pete (on CTV news), professors in the U of R Faculty of Education, discuss the importance of communities looking at who has been memorialized and who has significantly not been, and who has been served and who has not, as we strive towards reconciliation, righting past and present wrongs done to the First peoples of Canada.
The Davin School name (in Regina) is one such example: Nicolas Flood Davin wrote the Davin Report, which was instrumental in establishing the Canadian Residential School system, designed to separate children from their families in order to strip them of language and culture by diminishing parents’ abilities to transmit these vital aspects of their identity to their children.
Davin School memorializes Davin, who was also the founder of the Leader Newspaper and a prominent political figure, but the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery–where children who died while attending the residential school are buried–is not commemorated (yet). Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work, it is now understood that the high number of student deaths that occurred while attending Residential Schools were largely due to negligence on the part of the Canadian government and church administration.
Such cases as the Davin School and the RIIS cemetery reveal the priorities and values held by a society suffering from amnesia about the people who welcomed Europeans to this land, and the Canadian government policies that attempted to strip them of their cultures and languages, that separated families for seven generations, and whose policies made First people’s children vulnerable to physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse, and to the intergenerational effects of IRS abuse and loss. It is time to revisit the past, discover the truth, and right the wrongs in order to move forward together, in reconciliation.
CBC Radio’s Sheila Coles interviews Dr. Marc Spooner, University of Regina, on the topic of changing the name of Davin School in Regina, due to Nicolas Flood Davin’s hidden legacy demonstrated in his derogatory comments in the Davin Report, which promoted residential schools for Indigenous children and provided the model for the Residential School System in Canada.
Public Discussion about Controversial Names on Blue Sky:
The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair at the 2016 Woodrow Lloyd Lecture at the University of Regina