It was a moving experience for many local Indigenous people who attended a walk to the site of the Battleford Industrial School Cemetery Friday.
The cemetery and cairn are located on private property, but the organizers were granted permission to visit the site for the event, called "Walking for Reconciliation."
The Rural Municipality of Battle River recently passed a bylaw designating the property a heritage site, and a group of concerned citizens are working to obtain a provincial designation as well.
Eleanore Sunchild, a Cree advocate and lawyer who is a member of the committee working on the project, said it is critical to preserve the site in order to honour the many children who attended the former residential school.
"It's really important that people remember the students who were buried here, and that they remember the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools," she said, adding the Battleford Industrial School was one of the first Indian Residential Schools in Canada.
Sunchild said the last residential school in Canada closed in 1997, a fact which surprises many.
"For people of all races to come here and acknowledge these students and to acknowledge the Indian Residential School System is a good step towards reconciliation and learning the true history of Canadian colonialization," she said. "It's an important step, especially here in the Battlefords."
Alvin Baptiste, a member of Red Pheasant First Nation who attended the tour, said he was moved to see the list of names of many of the individuals buried at the site on one of the plates on the cairn.
"I already recognize one of my relative's names," he said as he studied the cairn along with a small group of people who participated in the tour.
Baptiste said a prayer at the cemetery to show his respects for the children buried there.
A cairn was erected at the gravesite in 1975 to recognize the 74 individuals buried at the site, most of whom were children. A plaque with their names inscribed was placed on the cairn by the Anglican church that operated the Battleford Residential School on behalf of the federal government. The school operated between 1883 and 1914, and the original school building no longer exists.
The school was originally located about three kilometres south of Battleford, while the cemetery is southwest of the former school in the Battle River area.
Sherron Burns, a learning consultant with Living Sky School Division and member of the committee working on the preservation project, said they are hoping to find a way to make the cemetery more accessible so more people can visit the site.
"But it's going to take some work," she said.
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