The Battleford Industrial School Cemetery has been granted provincial heritage status by the Saskatchewan government, a move the government said can serve as an educational experience about Canadian history and Indigenous peoples.
The cemetery is the final resting place of at least 74 people, most of them children who died while attending the school between 1883 and 1914.
“At least it’s got some protection now,” Eleanore Sunchild, a Battlefords-based lawyer, said of the site.
Sunchild has been helping residential school survivors file independent assessment claims for almost a decade and has heard stories from descendants of the Battleford school passed down as oral histories.
The site is controlled by a landowner who lives in another province. The trail into the site is owned by local Oblates, laymen who live in the nearby Roman Catholic monastery as part of a religious community.
Sunchild said the designation is a long time coming. Going forward, she would like to work with the landowner — Alberta resident Wayne Kopp — to increase accessibility to the site for students and others.
Sunchild said there is significant interest from schools looking to take students to see the site and its cenotaph.
Benedict Feist, lawyer and member of the Battleford Industrial School Commemorative Association along with Sunchild, said the group has worked with the landowner in the past for certain events like Orange Shirt Day.
“We’re all working toward the same goal,” Feist said of the ongoing process.
Feist noted there are several Indigenous communities surrounding the Battlefords and although the Industrial School wasn’t the only residential school in the area, it was the first one funded by the federal government.
“Before this school, they just provided grants to churches and stuff like that — but this was the first school that was opened up at the direction of the Department of Indian Affairs,” Feist said.
“It’s just historically important and it started here in the Battlefords.”
“Commemorating those who lost their lives, language and culture through residential schools is an important step for our province on the path toward reconciliation,” Gene Makowsky, minister of parks, culture and sport, said in a press release on Monday.
The cemetery had already been designated a municipal heritage site.