Cape Breton Post
Residential school graves found in Saskatchewan.
REGINA — A search of the cemetery at a former residential school on Cowessess First Nation has found evidence of 751 unmarked graves in what a Saskatchewan Indigenous leader calls the legacy of a genocide against Indigenous people.
Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme told reporters on Thursday that some of the graves may have been previously marked, with the headstones later removed in the 1960s. He said he cannot affirm that all are children, since there are oral stories that there are also adults in the gravesite. He stressed that it is not a mass grave.
“Removing headstones is a crime in this country,” he said, though he could not confirm such a law was in effect more than five decades ago. “We are treating this like a crime scene.”
Cowessess has been searching for undocumented burials for roughly three weeks, partnering with a team using ground-penetrating radar. Delorme said the radar has recorded hundreds of “hits” at the cemetery site, each of which has been marked with a flag.
“There are 751 flags,” said Delorme.
He said that is only Phase 1 of the efforts. Searchers cannot be certain that there are not more, since there could be two or more bodies under each flag. There could, conceivably, be fewer, since Delorme acknowledged that there is a margin of error of approximately 10 per cent. He said it’s clear that there are “at least 600” bodies.
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said the discovery shows “the results of the genocide that Canada committed.” He likened residential schools, which admitted First Nations children taken by their families by force and suppressed Indigenous culture, to concentration camps.
“We will find more bodies,” he said. “And we will not stop until we find all of our children. We will do a search of every Indian residential school site, and we won’t stop there.”
The Marieval Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 on what is now Cowessess land, about 165 kilometres east of Regina. It was run by the Roman Catholic Church. The government took over the school in 1968, and Cowessess itself assumed responsibility in 1981. It closed in 1997 and was demolished two years later. The church, rectory and cemetery remain to this day.
In scale, the discovery at Cowessess thus far exceeds the finding of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school site in Kamloops late last month. The horrific news from Kamloops shocked the country and triggered a wider
“We will find more bodies. And we will not stop until we find all of our children. We will do a search of every Indian residential school site, and we won’t stop there.”
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief
search for the undocumented remains of students at other residential schools.
Florence Sparvier, an elder at Cowessess who spoke to reporters along with leadership on Thursday, attended the Marieval school after her mother and grandmother. She said life there was harsh, as nuns at the school were “condemning about our people.”
“They told us our people, our parents and grandparents, didn’t have a way to be spiritual — because we were all heathens,” she said. “They were putting us down as a people, so we learned to not like who we were.”
Delorme said his First Nation will work to identify all the names it can, and is hoping the Roman Catholic Church will assist with records. He said the work will be years in the making.
“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 can come here and heal. It’s going to hurt in the coming months.”
Delorme demanded an apology from the pope for the tragedies at Marieval, and the impact on survivors and descendants. Pope Francis has so far resisted an apology for the Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 Saskatchewan First Nations, called the finding at Cowessess “the most significantly substantial to date in Canada.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has so far identified information about 4,100 children across Canada who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school, according to its website, but commission chair Murray Sinclair has said there are undoubtedly far more who have not been found.
There were about 20 residential schools in Saskatchewan. The provincial and federal government have pledged about $7 million to support the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in search efforts, investigations and ceremonies to honour the dead.
FSIN officials say they expect more tragic discoveries as those efforts continue. Cameron said Thursday that the world must understand what First Nations endured through the residential school system.
“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations people,” he said. “We are proud people. The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous.”
In a social media post, the FSIN provided phone numbers for those grappling with emotional distress as a result of the discoveries. Those in need of support can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-7210066, toll free, or the 24-hour Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.