The missing children

The legacy of residential schools includes unmarked graves

Cemetery foreman Greg Sundsten trudges back and forth through the foot of snow that has settled over Red Deer’s main graveyard. He takes a break from digging to explain how close he must be to finding the children’s graves. He rechecks his map and swears they are somewhere between Arndt and Bice. After an hour he gives up. Whatever remains to mark the children’s plot must be small hidden somewhere outside the trails Sundsten dug searching for them.

The search for these three children began 25 years ago with Lyle Richards who was volunteering in the Red Deer archives when he was approached by a stranger.

“A man by the name of Albert Lightning came in” says town historian Don Hepburn. The man informed Richards “you’re the one who’s going to find my brother for me.” Lightning’s brother was one of three children from the Red Deer Indian residential school who died during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Lightning was lucky to trace his brother to the town cemetery. Normally students were buried at the school beside the Kinickinick Creek but during the flu epidemic no one at the school was healthy enough to dig graves.

“They were buried up at the east hill at Red Deer Cemetery…. To assure they stayed within budget they were buried two to a grave; two graves up there with three bodies. But that’s got nothing to do with what’s at the school” Hepburn says.

Hepburn now 81 is well known in Red Deer as a keen historian of Western Canada’s indigenous people. He says after Richards discovered the cemetery in his search for Lightning’s brother “he sort of tucked that away in his head. And every now and then he mentioned it to someone: there’s a cemetery there. We should do something about it.”

In 2005 Richards who was too ill to be interviewed for this story convinced his church Sunnybrook United it was time “to do something.” Hepburn was solicited to help contact Indian bands whose children may be buried there.

The Red Deer Industrial School was only one of dozens of aboriginal residential schools in Alberta but it has the distinction of having had one of the highest student mortality rates in the country. In her 1993 master’s thesis for the University of Calgary Uta Fox found that of the 319 students known to have attended the school from 1893 until the records disappear in 1916 at least 45 died there or soon after leaving.

Though Red Deer Industrial was built as a trade school for teenagers the federal government’s per capita funding system forced it to take children as young as six in order to meet the student quota.

After the school closed in 1919 its buildings changed hands several times eventually used as chicken coops before finally collapsing. Today the cemetery is invisible. Grave markers have deteriorated and until recently the underbrush was so overgrown it was impossible to detect depressions in the ground where people were buried but a 2008 archeological survey conducted for a housing developer hoping to build a 55-lot subdivision beside the graveyard estimates between 35 and 70 people are buried there.

Red Deer’s residential school graveyard is not unique. Untold numbers of cemeteries on former school grounds exist across the province and the country.

In 1990 Native elders and city officials in St. Albert erected a monument to the 98 Inuit and Cree students believed to rest in unmarked graves at one of the town’s two former rez schools.

In 2001 elders presided over the reburial of 34 bodies from the Dunbow Residential School outside High River. Those remains were only dealt with after farmer Pat McHugh noticed coffins protruding from an eroding riverbank.

A commemoration ceremony for the Red Deer school began on June 30 2010. The students at Red Deer were Stoney Cree and Métis meaning the unidentified bodies in the cemetery could be from any of 11 communities as well as staff members and their children of European descent who succumbed to the same illnesses. The variety of backgrounds means the ceremony demands sophisticated co-ordination in order to honour each group’s customs. Each First Nation group follows a tradition of marking a death four times. The annual funeral event from 2010 to 2014 consists of a small graveside ceremony followed by a feast in Fort Normandeau park across the Kinnickinnick Creek.


When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2007 part of its mandate was to find out what became of the thousands of children who died at residential schools.

“We hear from parents who lost their child they sent them to school and they never came back. They don’t know where they’re buried how they died” says TRC commissioner Wilton Littlechild.

A Missing Children and Unmarked Burials working group suggested in its report to the TRC that every grave that could be found should be and the person in it identified. Ultimately the child’s band would be notified and a funeral ceremony performed. The report suggested the research be completed within two years.

“The working group was very optimistic to think we could do this work in two years. We were two years in before we really had any of the documents” says Alex Maass an archeologist and the head researcher on the Missing Children Project.

“There are millions of documents” she says. “Going through all of them and having the time and the money to do that and assuming we’ve located all of them as well — it’s a big task.”

Maass says the first steps are to identify the deceased through archival research and then to visit a site to find out if the graves exist.

“I go out and I look at them and I try and get some sense of where they might be. Sometimes there’s no evidence of them on the surface any longer sometimes there is” she says. She has visited schoolyard cemeteries across the country but when she wants to dig deeper the process slows because the TRC suffers from a chronic lack of funding.

“That second step of doing the ground-penetrating radar is not something that we’re funded to do” she says. “There are approximately 140 schools on the list now…. There will be probably as many cemeteries as there are schools and in five years we just don’t have the time to do an in-depth investigation of each one of them.”

Most students died from common illnesses exacerbated by terrible living conditions. Tuberculosis measles meningitis pneumonia and the flu all took a toll on children with immune systems already weakened by the stress of being separated from their families.

“They weren’t always fed well they weren’t always clothed well. Plus the conditions of the school were drafty and poorly heated…. They put them all together in these big dormitories. You read these early doctors’ reports and the doctors would say ‘ventilation. We need more ventilation.’ Meanwhile the nuns are running around shutting all the windows trying to keep the drafts out. So I think it was an incubation centre for disease” says Maass.

She says the purpose of the project from the First Nations’ perspective is merely to find the missing students. “What they want simply is to know where their dead are buried.”


Eric Large is one of two people on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation reserve charged with researching the fate of its former students. He speaks in a slow measured pace that matches his resignation that finding the missing children will take years.

The Saddle Lake band 250 kilometres northeast of Red Deer sent around 50 children to the Industrial School but nobody knows how many of them died there. Saddle Lake members also lived at schools in Saint Paul and Saint Albert where a graveyard containing up to 100 bodies many of them Inuit children is also being studied.

“That’s the best we can do” says Large. “These things take time. They don’t pop up and get solved.”

Large credits people in Red Deer for offering to help with the cemetery issue and says he doubts rumours the dead were carelessly interred. “I’m sure the clergy were probably the most respectful” he says.

Hepburn agrees. Whatever the horrors of the residential schools he simply doesn’t believe rumours that bodies were simply tossed in their graves without a Christian ceremony which would have been crucial to the clergy that ran the schools.

It’s an important point. Kevin Annett is arguably Canada’s most vocal advocate for tracking down missing residential students. He is the head of Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared Residential School Children and operates the website HiddenFromHistory.org. Annett accuses the government and church of deliberately concealing mass graves. His website offers up stories of children buried under inches of soil in school yards of priests disposing of live infants in furnaces of a genocidal conspiracy that extends to the Vatican. He has repeatedly claimed there are 50000 bodies yet to be found.

Maass says that is unlikely considering there were only about 100000 students over the country’s residential school history. She also says she hasn’t found evidence of indiscriminate or mass burials. “We’ve never found any evidence of a mass grave…. Only natural graveyards where children were buried one at a time.”

Annett’s self-appointed crusade for Canada’s indigenous people may not be welcome. He demands the remains of those buried at residential schools be returned to their respective communities which has alienated him from the TRC and the Assembly of First Nations.

“Oh no! No no no. We don’t even dig” says Large on the subject of exhumation. Affiliated First Nations bands want the Red Deer Cemetery protected not removed. Commemorating the bodies where they lie is paramount to the Cree which is why Large says the Cree Stoney and church members have collaborated for years to get the funeral ceremonies right.

Hepburn and Large continue to work together to track down missing children. The Red Deer case is unique in that it is one of the few where the community independently addressed its abandoned cemetery. Large says people interested in the unidentified children must work locally as the work will overwhelm the cash-strapped TRC.

“There’s a lot of unknowns because there’s records scattered in government archives church archives private archives” says Large. “It will be continuing work after the TRC folds up and leaves things to the community.”