A First Nation in Canada’s Saskatchewan province is treating a now-defunct residential school as a “crime scene” following the discovery of 751 unmarked graves just weeks after a similar discovery in British Columbia prompted a fresh reckoning over the country’s colonial past.
Published in The Guardian
Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation said that the graves were found on the site of the Marieval Indian residential school, also known as Grayson, after a search with ground-penetrating radar was launched on 2 June.
“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” said Delorme at a press conference on Thursday morning, adding that the discovery has “reopened the pain” that many suffered at the school. “The grave site is there. It is real.”
From the 19th century, more than 150,000 First Nations children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.
The children were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and thousands died from disease, neglect and suicide.
Cowessess First Nation said that the number of unmarked graves at the site is “the most significantly substantial to date in Canada”.
It is not known how many of the remains belong to children or if any adults were also buried, Delorme said. He added that local residents alleged that the graves’ headstones were illegally removed. “We didn’t remove these headstones. Removing headstones is a crime in this country. And we are treating this like a crime scene.”
Last month the remains of 215 children, some as young as three, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia.
The Marieval school operated from 1898 to 1996 about 87 miles east of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. The Cowessess First Nation took over the school’s cemetery from the Catholic church in the 1970s.
‘He was just a child’: dead of Indigenous residential schools haunt Canada
News of the discovery prompted a fresh outpouring of grief and frustration from national leaders.
“We are seeing the results of the genocide that Canada committed – genocide on our treaty land,” said chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nation. “Canada will be known as a nation that tried to exterminate the First Nations. Now we have evidence.”
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the schools policy as one of “cultural genocide”. In recent weeks, there have been growing calls for the Catholic church, which operated many of the schools, to release its records on the institutions.
“Our people deserve more than apologies and sympathies, which we are grateful for. Our people deserve justice,” said Cameron.
The Assembly of First Nations national chief, Perry Bellegarde, who comes from Little Black Bear First Nation in the the province of Saskatchewan, tweeted that the latest discovery is “absolutely tragic, but not surprising”.
“I urge all Canadians to stand with First Nations in this extremely difficult and emotional time.”
The grim discovery brings the total of unmarked graves discovered in the past month to about 1,000, with experts predicting more will come as provincial governments announce funding to help Indigenous communities conduct their own searches.
“We will do a search on every Indian residential school site and we will not stop there. We will also search all of the sanatoriums and Indian hospitals and all the sites where people were abused or neglected and murdered,” said Cameron. “We will tell the stories of our children of our people who died, who were killed by the state, by the churches. We won’t stop.”
The Canadian government formally apologized in parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant.
“I always wonder how a person who’s supposed to be a Christian person, a priest, can abuse a seven-year-old girl,” Carol Lavallee, who was taken from her home at age six in a cattle truck to attend Marieval, told a provincial healing gathering in 2007.
Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages; they also lost touch with their parents and customs.
Indigenous leaders have argued that the legacy of abuse and intergenerational trauma persists today as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
“A lot of the pain that we see in our in our people right now comes from there,” elder Florence Florence Sparvier, a former residential school student, told reporters at the press conference. “They made us believe we didn’t have souls.”
Both Cameron and Delorme said the work was only the beginning in a long process of identifying and properly commemorating those who died.
“We will find more bodies and we will not stop until we find all of our children,” said Cameron.
By Leyland Cecco
Published in The Guardian
24 June 2021