Fort Calgary will be the new site of Calgary’s Indian Residential School Memorial.
The Fort Calgary Preservation Society and the City of Calgary announced their intention to enter a partnership to design and build a permanent structure to honour children lost in Canada’s residential school system. It comes as Canada marks National Truth and Reconciliation Day across the country.
Work on the project began in earnest two years ago, a direct response to the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in June 2021. At that time, Calgary’s Indigenous Relations Office began working with different partners, including area Indigenous communities, to further the memorial project.
Calgary has had a temporary memorial with children’s shoes and stuffed toys in an area in front of Calgary’s municipal building dedicated to remembering the loss of Indigenous children to the residential school system.
The proposed memorial will now be built at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, a historically significant site for Alberta’s Indigenous peoples.
“This is an incredibly important day. It has been a long time coming, and I appreciate everyone’s patience as we made sure that we got this memorial right,” said Mayor Jyoti Gondek.
“And to anyone who’s a survivor of residential schools to anyone who has lost members of their family, my heart goes out to you. We will not forget and we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
There is a marker now indicating the northeast corner of the Fort Calgary property, next to the revamped community garden, will be the future home of the Indian Residential School Memorial.
Mayor Gondek said that the city has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the site’s location.
“This is where it began. This site is incredibly important to indigenous communities, and it is absolutely appropriate for a permanent memorial,” she said.
Construction on the site is set to begin in 2024, after further consultation work is completed on the design for the memorial.
Mayor Gondek said that conversations would begin around moving components of the the temporary memorial at Calgary City Hall, which has been in place since 2021, once that construction begins.
“How do we incorporate them? How do we make sure we honour the folks that constructed the original Memorial? There’s still a lot of conversations to be had,” she said.
“I greatly appreciate everyone who was involved, and I appreciate Calgarians understanding that we had to do this properly. We had to do it meaningfully and that’s why it took the time it did.”
Emotional day for Elders
Elder Marina Crane, said that the announcement of the permanent memorial on Orange Shirt Day, was an emotional one that impacts all of the Indigenous peoples who live in and around Calgary.
“I think every First Nations, Inuit and Métis have experienced Indian residential school, and the impact of childhood trauma,” she said.
Elder Crane spoke of the trauma that she and her family faced, describing the experience as being akin to being treated like slaves.
“The type of work they had to do, the starvation, the brutality of inadequate foods, experiments on them, sexual abuse amongst students. It’s a very deep impactful story that most indigenous people can’t even utter or even voice because they were taught to keep quiet.”
“I say dehumanizing because the documents show they were treated like animals—like horses and dogs.”
She spoke of her mother’s experience, who upon leaving residential school spent the rest of her life afraid of white Canadians.
The childhood trauma that is carried by survivors throughout their lives, said Elder Crane, is also what makes the permanent memorial so important to those survivors.
“Unless you’ve been around a person who’s been in combat from world wars, or have you experienced any type of trauma like that, you don’t really get the whole gist of what it’s like to live in such a community,” Crane said.
“I’m grateful that the City of Calgary is doing this for for the historical events that took place here, because in southern Alberta we had the largest amount of Indian residential schools… and that hopefully, what happens here in Calgary will have a bigger impact across Canada.”
Indigenous history a focus for Fort Calgary
In previous interviews with LWC, Fort Calgary president Jennifer Thompson said that for too long Fort Calgary history was tied to that of the Northwest Mounted Police. One of her commitments in joining Fort Calgary was to reconnect the site with its Indigenous past.
Thompson recalled her time in Winnipeg, in a place known as the Forks – where the Red River and Assiniboine River met – and the site is built around its history as a trading post that brought people together. She said that site has an Indigenous-centric story.
“When I came to Calgary and saw where Fort Calgary sits and didn’t see that being reflected, it started to get me sort of asking questions about why,” she said in a prior interview.
Thompson said the story of the Blackfoot peoples, other Treaty Seven Nations and the Métis people isn’t shared at that site.
“That story isn’t really anywhere and hasn’t really been brought to the forefront of the center of how Calgary was formed,” Thompson said.
The announcement of the new Indian Residential School will help change that, Thompson said.
“Truth must come before reconciliation, and the IRS Memorial will help deepen the community’s understanding of the truth that is represented here at Fort Calgary. We are grateful to the community and the City of Calgary for selecting this place as its future home,” she said.
According to Harold Horsefall with the City of Calgary’s Indigenous Relations Office, and project co-lead, the next steps are development of the siting and design working group and then final design and construction.
Province opens Reconciliation Garden, sculpture
On Friday, the Government of Alberta unveiled its permanent Indian Residential School Memorial on the site of the Alberta Legislature. According to the province, four Elders helped design a garden – Kihciy Maskikiy/Aakaakmotaani – a name that combines Cree and Blackfoot words, respectively, and translates to “sacred medicine/save many people.”
Inside the garden is a sculpture, Mother Earth Circling: Healing from the residential school experience, done by Saddle Lake Cree Nation artist Stewart Steinhauer.
The province said the sculpture fulfills the 82nd Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report to commission monuments to honour victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system.
“This garden is a meaningful and heartfelt symbol of Alberta’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. It represents the resiliency, power and beauty of Indigenous cultures and traditions, and opening it today is a fitting way to lead into the Day for Truth and Reconciliation,” said Premier Danielle Smith, in a prepared media statement.
The central theme of the provincial monument is the need for healing from the trauma of residential schools.