751 unmarked graves at Saskatchewan residential school: First Nation

751 unmarked graves at Saskatchewan residential school: First Nation
Cowesses First Nation.

A Saskatchewan First Nation says it has found 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.

The Cowessess First Nation says ground-penetrating radar recently discovered the graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School.

“We always knew that there were graves here,” Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme told a virtual news conference Thursday.

He showed a photo of a grassy field with coloured markers sticking out of the ground.

“The gravesite is there and it is real,” he said.

“There are 751 flags.”

Delorme promised that memories of those who died at Marieval will not be wiped out. He said work will be done so a name is placed on each of the unmarked graves he said may have had markers or headstones that were removed in the 1960s.

“The Catholic Church representatives removed these headstones, and today they are unmarked graves,” Delorme said.

“We want to honour our loved ones that lay there today,” he said. “We want to make sure that we keep that place and preserve it so many could come here and heal.”

The Archdiocese of Regina shared a letter it sent to Delorme, which said it has had conversations with the First Nation about abuse at the school, unmarked graves and how one priest destroyed headstones.

“As you have communicated elsewhere, Chief Cadmus, even for those of us who were not there or not involved, it is nonetheless the painful legacy that we need to carry,” Archbishop Don Bolen wrote.

Spokesman Eric Gurash also said the archdiocese contributed $70,000 to the First Nation for cemetery restoration.

The grave search began earlier this month using ground-penetrating radar that recorded 751 hits. The number would be the highest to date found in Canada. Delorme said the technology has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate.

“But we do know there are at least 600 (graves).”

The existence and number of graves do not come as a surprise to those yet living who attended the school, he said.

“Over the past years, the oral stories of our elders, of our survivors and friends of our survivors, have told us they knew these burials were here,” said Delorme.

One expert says the discovery, along with the discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops last month, are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

“We’re now at two sites out of perhaps as many as 400 in the country, so we have to recognize that we’re going to be going through this extraordinarily painful process for a while yet and there’s a lot of discovery to happen yet,” said Ry Moran, an associate librarian of reconciliation at the University of Victoria.

A Vancouver Island residential survivor reacted to the news saying the staggeringly high number was “hard to process.”

“It’s heart-shattering,” said Eddy Charlie, a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School.

The Saskatchewan discovery has Charlie reflecting on his own time at the school..
“I remember walking around in the school and noticing that children were not showing up at the cafeteria or classroom or church and I always wondered where they disappeared to,” he said.

Last month, a First Nation in British Columbia announced ground-penetrating radar had found what are believed to be the remains of 215 children buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops. The school was once the largest in Canada’s residential school network.

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended the schools between the 1860s and 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented stories from survivors and families and issued a report in 2015.

The report details mistreatment at the schools, including the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths.

The Cowessess school, about 160 kilometres east of Regina, was built in 1899 by Roman Catholic missionaries. Delorme says it closed in 1996.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering from trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2021.

April LawrenceApril Lawrence

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