Janine Windolph, right, Gene Makowsky, Minister of Parks, Culture and Sport, at centre, and land owner Nadeem Islam unveil a plaque marking the Regina Indian Industrial School Cemetery on Pinkie Road as provincial heritage property.
After a two-year journey for advocates seeking heritage recognition, the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery has a plaque commemorating the dozens of children who died and were buried near the residential school site.
The plaque was unveiled near the cemetery Tuesday morning to the delight of Janine Windolph, the advocate who began the push for the cemetery’s commemoration and past president of the Regina Indian Industrial School Commemorative Association.
“I look at my own kids and think about what it would be like if they weren’t acknowledged,” she said. “That brings great sadness and that’s why I continued the work here, so I feel that I don’t have to worry about them being forgotten, that people are responding and listening and that’s encouraging for steps moving forward.”
Dutch Lerat, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, gave a short speech to mark the occasion.
“This designation ensures the protection of our loved ones who lay here, as they never made it back to their home communities. It ensures that we as a community and society respect this sacred site as a burial of our children whose only crime in life was to be born an Indian in 1891,” he said.
Vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Dutch Lerat addresses a crowd Regina Indian Industrial School Cemetery on Pinkie Road to watch the unveiling of a plaque marking the land as provincial heritage property.
The Regina Indian Industrial School operated from 1891 to 1910, and Lerat estimated that 400 Indigenous children passed through its doors.
“I want to acknowledge all of the First Nations whose children lie here,” he said. “It’s a sad history and a critical acknowledgement to share their stories.”
Lerat and Windolph agree that this is a step in the right direction for reconciliation.
“I feel joy that we’ve come to this step and that the work still continues on,” said Windolph. “While I feel hopeful, I also know there’s more work to be done.”
Gene Makowsky, the province’s minister of parks, culture and sport, acknowledged the importance of commemorating this piece of history.
“Today’s plaque unveiling is one which requires reflection and remembrance of a dark chapter in our history as a province and as a nation. This provincial heritage property plaque is a step in reconciling our pasts and moving towards a better, more inclusive future,” he said in a prepared statement.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many children are buried in the cemetery, said Windolph, but surveying equipment detected 36 anomalies in the area, meaning there are at least 36 graves. This number could be much higher because of the common practice of stacking graves.
Figuring out who each child was is also hard, with spotty historical records leaving a lot of questions, but Windolph said she has a list of 20 names that she believes are buried there.
Not all the graves are enclosed by the existing fence, so work will continue at the cemetery to put in a new fence around a larger area. An annual event to honour the children buried there is also in the works.