An Indigenous community in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan said it found 751 unmarked graves near a former boarding school, weeks after a similar discovery at another school set off a nationwide discussion about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people.
The Cowessess First Nation, located about a two-hour drive east of Regina, Saskatchewan, said Thursday it began searching the area of the Marieval Indian Residential School earlier this month. The school operated between the late 1890s and 1997, and was part of a nationwide system that removed Indigenous children from their families over the course of more than a century and suppressed their culture and language. A 2015 report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the system amounted to cultural genocide.
In many cases, students who were sent to so-called residential schools endured physical and sexual abuse, the report found. An estimated 4,100 children died of disease or by accident while in the system, although some Indigenous leaders believe the number is much higher.
Cowessess First Nation Chief
said on Thursday that researchers used ground-penetrating radar, which looks for changes in the soil’s water and salt content, to search the area. He said the search identified 751 possible graves, and that researchers indicated there is a 10% to 15% margin of error on their findings.
Chief Delorme said children who died while attending the Marieval school were buried at the site and their graves may have been marked in the past. However, he said headstones were later removed by representatives from the Catholic Church, which ran the school for many years. He added that it isn’t known whether all of the unmarked graves the community discovered represent former students at the residential school, and it is possible that some adult community members were buried on the site as well. Most of the graves are spaced evenly apart, he said, and each one is now marked by a small flag.
“We are going to be putting names to these unmarked graves,” Chief Delorme said. He said the community wants to honor those buried at the site and preserve the area. “It’s going to hurt in the coming months, because the more we put names to them, the more it’s going to reopen some of the pain that many endured at the Marieval residential school.”
The discovery in Saskatchewan came several weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation near Kamloops, British Columbia, said it found the remains of 215 children in the area of a former government-funded boarding school. That led to calls to search for more unmarked graves at the sites of some of the roughly 150 former residential schools across Canada, and the search at the Marieval site began around that time.
The Kamloops discovery also sparked a national outpouring of grief. Across the country, flags were flown at half-mast and memorials were set up on the steps of churches. Some municipalities in British Columbia have said they will cancel their annual July 1 Canada Day celebrations, which would have been held virtually due to pandemic restrictions, in response to the Kamloops discovery.
The discovery has also drawn international attention. Earlier this week, U.S. Interior Secretary
said the federal government will investigate its own legacy of boarding schools, including an examination of possible burial sites. The Kamloops discovery “should prompt us to reflect on past Federal policies to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples in the United States,” Ms. Haaland wrote in a June 22 memo describing the planned investigation.
The Marieval Indian Residential School was among the last residential schools in Canada to close. The building was later demolished and replaced by a day school, according to a report by Scott Hamilton, an anthropology professor at Lakehead University in Ontario.
Florence Sparvier, 80 years old, attended the Marieval school as a child. She said during a press conference on Thursday that Indigenous people and their culture were denigrated at the school “so we learned to not like who we were.” Staff forced the students to learn how to be Roman Catholic, she said, and wouldn’t allow the children to say their own blessings.
Many Indigenous leaders expect that more burial sites will be found as communities across the country undertake searches with ground-penetrating radar. “We will find more bodies and we will not stop until we find all of our children,” said Chief
of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
The archbishop of Regina,
wrote in a letter addressed to Chief Delorme and the Cowessess First Nation on Thursday that the discovery of unmarked graves at the Marieval site “brings us face to face with the brutal legacy” of the residential school system, which he said caused trauma that was passed down from one generation to the next.
“I know that apologies seem a very small step as the weight of past suffering comes into greater light, but I extend that apology again,” he said in the letter. He added the archdiocese would do what it could to turn its apology into meaningful action, including by providing access to information that might help identify those who were buried in the unmarked graves.
Canadian Prime Minister
said Thursday that the findings at the Marieval and Kamloops schools are a shameful reminder of the racism and injustice Indigenous people in Canada have experienced in the past and continue to endure.
“I am terribly saddened to learn that the remains of children had been found in unmarked graves near the former Marieval (Cowessess) Residential School in Saskatchewan,” Mr. Trudeau said. “My heart breaks for the Cowessess First Nation, and for all Indigenous communities across Canada.”
Write to Kim Mackrael at [email protected]
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