The Efforts of Two Saskatchewan Lawyers to Preserve the Battleford Industrial School Cemetery

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Kelly Laycock, Publications Coordinator

A cairn at the Battleford Industrial School in Battleford, SK, erected in 1975 after more than 70 unmarked graves were excavated in the cemetery. (Photo credit: Jim Cairns/Wikimedia Commons)

Saskatchewan lawyers Benedict Feist and Eleanore Sunchild are helping in the fight to gain heritage status for the graveyard at the Battleford Industrial School, a former residential school site that operated from 1883–1914. Hundreds of Indigenous students attended the school during that time, but not all of them survived it.

The cemetery was opened in 1884 because of student deaths at the school. Tuberculosis and influenza, among other illnesses, were an issue at that time.

The cemetery was almost forgotten, until a group of archaeology students and staff from the University of Saskatchewan took an interest and excavated more than 70 graves. Fifty bodies were identified as students named in school records. At that time, a small memorial was erected to commemorate those students.

But the cemetery is once again the topic of conversation, as it was named in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report[1] in 2015:

Many of the cemeteries in which students were buried have long since been abandoned. When the Battleford school in Saskatchewan closed in 1914, Principal E. Matheson reminded Indian Affairs that there was a school cemetery that contained the bodies of seventy to eighty individuals, most of whom were former students. He worried that unless the government took steps to care for the cemetery, it would be overrun by stray cattle. Such advice, when ignored, led to instances of neglect, with very distressing results. [footnotes omitted]

Ben and Eleanore, along with members of First Nations communities in the area and the Battlefords’ Historical Society, are spearheading a commemorative project after reading the recommendations of the TRC’s Calls to Action Report. The group held a public information session at the North Battleford Public Library on May 3 to outline the history of the school and the cemetery site, and there seems to be community support in pursuing the project.

The goal is to have the graveyard and cairn recognized with official cemetery status, and Ben wants permanent preservation, protection and accessibility of this and other residential school cemeteries in the Battlefords area.

“I would like it to be a historical site, so that it’s preserved and it can be used for educational purposes,” Eleanore told the Battlefords News-Optimist in an article from May 8, 2017. “There’s a lot of schools that want to see it because it is part of the whole history regarding residential schools and calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so it is something that is important to the community.”

They have a lot of work yet to do, and they want local First Nations communities and residential school survivors to lead the movement. The information session was a good first step in bringing awareness to their project and the importance of recognizing the legacy left from residential schools, which goes beyond just the Battlefords region.

“It is very important because we all suffer the effects of Indian residential schools, whether we are native or non-native,” Eleanore says. “We deal with the intergenerational effects in our society. We see it in this community. I think there is a divide between our people, and a lot of that stems from the schools.”[2]

To read more about the cemetery and the importance of preserving it, please see an article by Eleanore Sunchild and Benedict Feist, published on page 10 of the Summer Issue of the Benchers’ Digest.

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, in The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol. 4 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 10.

[2] Quoted from “Battleford Industrial School cemetery project discussed” by John Cairns, in Battlefords News-Optimist, May 8, 2017.

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