Shallow graves, deep scars: Unmarked cemetery in Alberta reflects atrocities at one of Canada’s deadliest residential schools
RED DEER—The red and yellow autumn leaves crunch under Lyle Keewatin Richards’ feet as he walks, sinking into the still snow on a small plot of private land on the outskirts of Red Deer. He treads carefully, for with every step he knows he may be walking on the grave of a child who attended the Red Deer Indian Industrial School.
The unmarked cemetery is located on a mostly empty stretch of farmer’s field, dotted with a few small shrubs and trees, next to a steep valley overlooking the Sylvan Creek. It’s about 500 metres away from the original site of the Red Deer Industrial School, established in 1892 and considered one of the most atrocious examples of the suffering, abuse and neglect that were rampant in Canada’s residential school system.
A 2008 geological survey found 20 burial sites in the field, but it is estimated between 50 and 70 children who attended the school between 1893 and 1918 are buried on the grounds. The Red Deer Industrial School was plagued by widespread disease, a defective sanitation system that led to further contamination and illness, underfunding, overcrowding and one of the highest mortality rates of any such school in Canada.
Richards stops to place a piece of tobacco on the ground, saying a prayer for the children in their final resting place. The only sign that this is more than just an empty field are two pairs of red and white prayer flags dangling from tree branches. Richards explains the flags went through a sweat lodge ceremony, and were prayed over by an Elder before being hung to honour the children.
Looking closer, one can observe slight depressions in the ground, marking the shallow graves.
“At this site there are little tiny graves,” Richards notes. “What the hell is that about? Some of the atrocities, I don’t even like to contemplate.”
As Richards walks, he recalls the time he welcomed a large group of students from various First Nations in Alberta to learn about the unmarked cemetery as part of a school field trip.
“I said I’m sure happy these kids are here, because they get to go home,” Richards said. “These kids never got to go home.”