Just a month after the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Canada’s British Columbia, First Nations leaders in Saskatchewan have uncovered hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of another residential school.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said the remains of 751 people were identified at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, which operated under the Catholic Church from 1886 to 1996.
The discovery may be shocking, but for members of the Cowessess it was only confirmation of what was already known in their community. “Over the past years, the oral stories of our elders of our survivors and friends of our survivors have told the stories that knew these burials were here,” Delorme said in a virtual address.
The revelation comes on the heels of the discovery of 215 children on the site of what used to be Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school, near Kamloops, British Columbia. Some of the remains discovered were estimated to have belonged to children as young as 3.
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The Cowessess First Nation began its research on June 2 using ground-penetrating radar with the help of Saskatchewan Polytechnic. While Delorme said they cannot confirm that all the remains are children, the technology flagged more than 751 graves with a 10 to 15 percent margin of error, meaning at least 600 bodies are buried at the site of the former school.
A staked child’s dress near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the school on June 5. Cole Burston / AFP/Getty Images
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s research said in a report that Canada’s residential school system equated to cultural genocide. It had previously said that a cemetery was left on the Marieval site after the school was destroyed. The Canadian government began funding the school around 1901, and the school stopped operating under the Catholic Church in the 1970s.
At one time, Delorme said, there were headstones on the graves, but the church removed them around 1960. Removing headstones is a crime in Canada under the Cemeteries Act, and the site is now being treated as a crime scene.
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Delorme emphasized that the discovery was not a mass grave but hundreds of individual, unmarked graves. The First Nation leader said all levels of government are cooperating with the process of documenting the burial site and locating the identities of those interred there.
Eventually, First Nations leaders will place a monument on the site. First Nations leaders are also in talks with the region’s archdiocese as they begin the process of recognizing and reconciling past injustices committed against Native people by the Canadian government and the church.
“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations, in Saskatchewan. “We are seeing the results of the genocide Canada committed, genocide on our treaty land. We will find more bodies, and we will not stop until we find all of our children.”
First Nations leaders have also demanded a formal apology from Pope Francis, who addressed the tragic discovery in British Columbia in May but did not offer an apology on behalf of the church, as the First Nations and the Canadian government had hoped for.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously recognized the atrocities committed against First Nations by the Canadian government and offered apologies and cooperation to those conducting research on residential schools. According to the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the late 19th century to the 1970s. Sexual, physical, spiritual and emotional abuse was rampant.
“The hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear, and the government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need to bring these terrible wrongs to light,” Trudeau said in a statement. “While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can—and we will—tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honor their memory.”
A survivor of the Marieval school said during the virtual address that the state forced Indigenous parents to voluntarily enroll their children at the residential schools by jailing parents who refused.
“We were taught at home that we had to look after ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. That all got stripped away when we went to boarding school,” the survivor said. Students were forced to assimilate and were not allowed to practice their Indigenous spiritual beliefs, the person added.
The remains flagged during a radar search will be evaluated by a technical team, and the findings are to be confirmed in the next few weeks.