A memorial erected in Fort Providence to remember 298 children buried in an unmarked cemetery, including 161 children who attended the local residential school. Photo: Albert Lafferty
Warning: The following report contains descriptions of genocide and violence committed against Indigenous children and communities. If you require support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-925-4419.
The Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation plans to search the grounds of the former Sacred Heart residential school site in Fort Providence for unmarked graves.
First reported by CKLB, Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge confirmed to Cabin Radio that the First Nation hopes to complete a search of the grounds before snowfall this year.
The Sacred Heart School opened in Fort Providence in 1867 and closed in 1960, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. It was run by the Catholic Church and generally enrolled between 65 and 75 students at a time.
“We still feel the remnants … it’s such an impact, socially,” Bonnetrouge said.
“The things people have endured over the years need to be acknowledged and eventually there will be some form of closure, but that impact and the legacy will still be with us for a long time to come yet.”
Bonnetrouge himself attended the residential school. He said the experience has stuck with many members of the community and affected the culture.
“We know for a fact that a lot of the Dene beliefs, ceremonies went underground,” he said. “It was defiled by the church.
“My uncles were telling me, when they were in a mission, people would come from the spring hunt to the community to sell their furs, and they could hear the drums in the evenings and wanted to go see. They would ask permission, and Father Superior would say they’re not allowed to go because it’s the work of the devil.”
Searching the grounds is a step toward healing, Bonnetrouge said.
That process will start with a consultations of Elders and former students to learn what they may know and determine the best way forward. Residents have already been reaching out with stories of the school and surrounding grounds, according to Bonnetrouge.
He added the First Nation is looking for extra funding to help obtain ground-penetrating radar and carry out the examination.
Remembering the ancestors
Over the past half-year, nearly 2,000 unmarked graves have been found at former residential school sites across Canada. More Indigenous communities are launching their own searches to find the children that never came home.
The upcoming search in Fort Providence builds on work done nearly three decades ago to identify and commemorate community members – including children who attended the residential school – buried in a local cemetery.
Albert Lafferty, a Métis resident of the hamlet, led research efforts between 1992 and 1994. He said he was inspired to take action after hearing about the cemetery from community members throughout his childhood.
“I would often hear our family members mention the old community cemetery here in Fort Providence that had been ploughed over in 1948,” he said. “Many of our ancestors were buried there, along with people from the mission and from residential school.
“I was looking ahead, thinking that in 50 years or a few decades ahead, there may be development along that site. If it’s not preserved, then they may do a hotel or condo or something there, and they will be disrupting the burial grounds for our Métis ancestors and the First Nations people that are buried there.”
Lafferty has family buried in the site.
To preserve their memory and others, he spent two years researching and compiling a list of those buried in the cemetery with assistance from the Roman Catholic Diocese in Yellowknife.
He was able to determine that the first community cemetery was established in 1868 where the mission was built, then moved to another location in 1929, where the current Roman Catholic cemetery stands. After the old cemetery was ploughed over in 1948 – for reasons still unknown to the community, Lafferty said – it became a potato field.
Lafferty was able to track down a total of 298 names of people buried at the site, their graves unmarked. A memorial has since been erected to honour them.
“It is a sacred area,” he said of the site. “It has meaning to us. They were our ancestors. We’re the living people, the descendants today that live here in Fort Providence.
“It’s important that this is documented and it remains preserved, sacred, and undisturbed so that there’s no future development at that site.”
The cemetery also holds 161 children from across the Mackenzie Valley who attended the residential school.
Lafferty said he was glad to hear the Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation would be searching the former school grounds.
However, he continued, it’s a first step.
“I tried to make sense as to why these cemeteries were covered up, or why they were no longer designated cemeteries for some reason,” he said.
“Now there’s more work being done across the country and through the North, I expect there’ll be more along that path to discover and reflect upon what transpired for generations of Indigenous people from one end of Canada to the other.”