An Indigenous community in western Canada said it found hundreds of unmarked graves near a former boarding school less than a month after a similar discovery shocked the country and reignited a nationwide discussion about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, issued a statement that said it would provide more details about the discovery during a Thursday press conference alongside the Cowessess First Nation, which is located about a hundred miles east of Regina. It didn’t specify how many graves had been found but called the discovery “the most significantly substantial” so far in the country.
The announcement comes several weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation near Kamloops, British Columbia, said it had discovered the remains of 215 children in the area of a former government-funded boarding school. The discovery sparked calls to search for more unmarked graves at the sites of some of the roughly 150 former residential schools across Canada.
Canada’s residential school system operated for more than a century and separated an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children from their families. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a report on the system in 2015 that said the practice of sending Indigenous children to boarding schools, often by force or coercion, where they were forced to abandon their culture and language, amounted to cultural genocide.
An estimated 4,100 children died of disease or by accident while in the system, according to updated figures from the Commission’s report, but some Indigenous leaders believe the number could be significantly higher. Murray Sinclair, a former judge and senator who led the commission and who is Indigenous, has said he believes the total death toll could be in the range of 15,000 to 25,000, a number he arrived at by extrapolating from the number of remains found in Kamloops.
The most recent discovery of unmarked graves is at the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School, according to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. The school operated in Saskatchewan for nearly a century before it closed in the 1990s, making it one of the last of its kind in Canada to close.
“I’m feeling like a punch in the gut,”
a former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Wednesday night after news of the Saskatchewan discovery emerged.
“And there is a part of me that feels that sort of sad righteousness…of saying, ‘We told you this was coming.’ ”
The school building was demolished after its closure and replaced with a day school, according to a report by Scott Hamilton, an anthropology professor at Lakehead University in Ontario. It was operated by the Roman Catholic Church through much of its history.
The Archdiocese of Regina issued a statement earlier in June saying it had a responsibility “to look anew” at four Catholic-operated residential schools that existed in the region, including the Marieval Indian Residential School. It also offered to help with the process of searching for unmarked graves. “We are profoundly sorry for the hurt that actions and decisions of our church in the past have caused to Indigenous peoples,” Archbishop Donald Bolen said in the statement.
The Canadian government said after the Kamloops discovery that it would make funding it had previously pledged available to help pay for the use of ground-penetrating radar to search the sites of former boarding schools for unmarked graves. Some communities already were undertaking that work in previous years, while others began making plans to search for possible remains after the Kamloops discovery.
—Paul Vieira in Ottawa contributed to this article.
Write to Kim Mackrael at [email protected]
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