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City of Calgary wants to memorialize former residential school site

The short chapter of a Calgary site in the tragic history of Canada’s residential school system will not be forgotten if the City of Calgary and Treaty 7 nations can agree on how to do that.

St. Dunstan’s industrial school was operated by the Anglican Church from 1892 to 1907 on land that is now in southeast Calgary.

Located between Deerfoot Trail and the Bow River, a short distance south of the Calf Robe Bridge, the city has owned the land for several decades.

The city is interested in working with Treaty 7 nations on a plan to memorialize the St. Dunstan’s site and possibly place a public art project there.

“We understand how significant the site is,” said Michelle Reid, the cultural landscape lead for the parks department.

However she said the city wants the support from area Indigenous nations for any work done at the site. It began approaching them in 2020 on the idea.

“We started having conversations with the nations about what would be appropriate on this site. What kind of information would you like to see on this site? Is it worth us to move forward with engagement at this time?”

Engagement on hold

However, that process was halted following the discovery of probable graves in 2021 at a former residential school site near Kamloops, B.C.

Reid said ensuring the former St. Dunstan’s land is commemorated could be part of the city’s reconciliation efforts but it will not be acting unilaterally.

“After the probable graves were discovered, both sides just felt it was really important to put a hold on this and so now we are really taking our cues from the nations,” said Reid.

An Indigenous student at the school, 17 year-old Jack White Goose Flying, died of tuberculosis in 1899 while attending St. Dunstan’s. His body was buried a distance away from the school.

Excavation work at the site of the former St. Dunstan’s residential school in Calgary. (City of Calgary)

When industrial development came close to the grave in the early 1970s, the city moved his remains to Queen’s Park cemetery.

Reid says no other burials are believed to have taken place near the school but the city is ready to engage contractors to explore the area for any unmarked graves.

CBC News contacted several Treaty 7 nations about the city’s ideas but none of them have chosen to comment.

Confronting reality

The city councillor for the area where the school was located, Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, said this work may be “crushingly hard” to undertake but finding the truth is part of ensuring the past isn’t forgotten.

“We signed a peace treaty to allow Euro-Canadian settlement and fundamentally, we betrayed the terms of that peace treaty by conducting a genocide on the first nations with whom we signed,” said Carra. 

“Now we’re confronting that reality and we’re taking our time to do it right and respectfully.”

As an elected official, he said it’s his job to help ensure this work is funded properly and done in accordance with the wishes of Indigenous nations that have connections with the St. Dunstan’s site.

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