Cowessess First Nation says 751 unmarked graves found near former Sask. residential school
TORONTO -- WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing
Cowessess First Nation says it has found an estimated 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
The Cowessess First Nation, located 164 kilometres east of Regina, began radar scanning of the school grounds and surrounding area on June 1. The findings of that search were officially announced at a news briefing Thursday.
Chief Cadmus Delorme emphasized that the findings were not from a mass grave, but unmarked graves where headstones had been removed.
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"The Catholic church representatives removed the headstones and today they are unmarked graves," he said.
The ground penetrating radar used to search the grounds marked 751 hits, but Delorme said the machine isn't perfect and there is a 10 to 15 per cent margin of error with the process.
"Each of these hits will be assessed by a technical team, and we will get a verified number in the coming weeks," he said.
At this stage of the investigation they are unable to identify the remains in the unmarked graves, which may belong to both adults and children.
"We cannot confirm that they are all children, but there are oral stories that there are adults in this gravesite as well," Delorme added.
Don Bolen, the archbishop of Regina, said the gravesites are unmarked at least in part due to an argument between a priest at the school and a local First Nations chief in the 1960s.
"A priest who was serving there -- an oblate priest -- entered into a conflict with the chief and took a bulldozer and knocked over huge numbers of tombstones,” he said.
“We didn't expect 751 unmarked graves. The number is overwhelming and it points to the pain and the suffering that were connected with that residential school and with the particular moment in the past.”
In 2019, the Archdiocese of Regina gave the Cowessess First Nation $70,000 to help restore the gravesite.
Delorme said that the residential school students could have come from southern Saskatchewan as well as from Manitoba.
"I have been advised from oral stories of survivors that some southwestern areas of Manitoba did go to Marieval," Delorme added.
While he isn’t able to confirm exactly which nations would have attended the school, Delorme said that the majority of children would have come from Treaty Four nations.
The goal for Cowessess First Nation is to identify the remains and mark the graves to honour those lost to the residential school.
"One day there will be a monument there. Every one of those graves will be marked and probably not every grave will have the exact name, but that is our end goal," Delorme said.
Delorme says he is confident that the Church will hand over records pertaining to the school, but at present, they have just one book of records from a Knowledge Keeper, who he said held onto it when she was young, despite threat of charges.
"She mentioned that they were threatening to charge her for keeping those records, so she was able to keep one of those books," he said.
Delorme added that additional information comes from oral histories and grandparents who took account of having to bury their own classmates and that they’ve been working to collect and preserve these stories.
While he anticipates the co-operation of the Catholic Church, he wants an apology from the Pope.
"The Pope needs to apologize for what has happened to the Marieval residential school impact on Cowessess First Nation survivors and descendents," he said.
The news comes less than a month after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation discovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The Marieval residential school operated from 1898 to 1997 in the Qu'Appelle Valley. It was run by the Roman Catholic Church until Cowessess First Nation took over its operations in 1981.
'IT'S STILL GOING ON'
A survivor of Marieval Residential School said that she had no choice but to go there and that one of her parents would have been sent to jail if they didn’t send a child to the school.
"In order to keep the family together, we went to boarding school. They brought us there, we stayed there. And we learned, they pounded it into us, and really they were very mean. When I say pounding, I mean pounding," Elder Florence Sparvier said at the press conference.
Under the Indian Act, Indigenous people were forced by the Canadian government to attend residential schools, and the RCMP played a major role in what survivors call kidnappings.
The students were forced to learn about the Catholic god, and the nuns and priests condemned First Nations people for not following the Catholic religion.
"They told us our people, our parents and grandparents had no, they didn't have a way to be spiritual, because we were all heathens," she said.
She was the third generation of her family to go to the residential school. Her mother and grandmother both attended.
"They were putting us down as a people," she said. "So we learn how to not like who we were. And that has gone on and on, and it's still going on."
Through the attempt to assimilate Indigenous people, the nuns and priests who ran the residential schools forced them to view themselves differently, Sparvier said. She said they were made to believe that they didn’t have souls.
"A lot of the pain that we see in our people right now comes from there," she said.
Barry Kennedy, a survivor of the Marieval residential school, told CTV News Channel on Thursday that he "can't find the words" to describe how he feels knowing more than 750 graves surround his former school. He said it is likely that some of the graves could be former students he once knew.
"I got a friend that's missing. His name was Brian, and one night he was taken like everybody else was and he just didn't return. So is he here? Is he here amongst all these graves?" Kennedy said.
Kennedy arrived at Marieval when he was five years old, and says he witnessed burials throughout his time at the school while helping the church as an altar boy.
"We were called to the church one early morning… we were brought outside and they were burying someone. Who it was, whether it was a boy or a girl, I don't know. But what I do know is that this individual was wrapped in a sheet and there was a hole dug," he said.
Kennedy said he experienced brutality at the school from the moment he arrived. He said “"everything was done with a physical" hand at the school, and children were frequently slapped, punched and kicked, among other abuses.
Kennedy noted that some of these details may be difficult for people to hear, however, he says these atrocities need to be acknowledged not only in Canada, but across North America.
"This has to be a worldwide cry of what systemic racism created," he said.
While the road to reconciliation continues to be a long one, Kennedy said it is a necessary journey to "heal as a country."
"We have to try and fix it in a respectful way so that we can move forward, not only as Indigenous nations of Canada, but as a country. We have to make this right," Kennedy said.
INDIGENOUS LEADERS REACT
Following the discovery in Cowessess, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is calling for more supports for residential school survivors and their families.
"To honour the children lost, to acknowledge the legacy of the residential school system and its ongoing impacts, and to take the first significant steps towards reconciliation, Canada must act now with intention," NCTR executive director Stephanie Scott said in a press release issued Thursday.
Scott said the new discovery of unmarked graves in Saskatchewan confirm stories told in the community for decades.
"For years, Indigenous communities were traumatized with not knowing where loved ones were; many survivors shared memories from their childhood of seeing fellow classmates die or being forced to dig graves for their fellow students," Scott said.
"There should never be graveyards at school -- full stop -- but we know there are many."
The NCTR said unmarked burial sites is a "reality of the residential school legacy" that most Canadians have long overlooked.
Scott said the "horrific truth" of these institutions can no longer be ignored, and said governments and churches must provide access to the necessary school records to identify the locations of all children who died at residential schools to allow for Indigenous communities to properly honour them.
"While the enormity of the numbers are horrifying, we must remember that even one death of a stolen child left in an unmarked grave without the love of their families, is truly beyond words," she said.
Amid dealing with its own recent finding of unmarked burial sites, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said it recognizes the "horrific truth" that Cowessess First Nation, residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors are currently grappling with.
"We regret that we know well what Cowessess First Nation is going through," Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said in a press release on Thursday. "It has been a heavy burden but one we carry with love, honour and respect for the Kamloops Indian Residential School children."
"As with Cowessess First Nation, for Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, this is only phase one, more investigation is needed."
The First Nation added that Cowessess and those affected by the discovery will be in the community's prayers and ceremonies.
"We stand with Cowessess First Nation in mourning as well as in deep gratitude for the survivors and intergenerational survivors who held fast to the truth of the unmarked graves," Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said.
'WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL WE FIND ALL OF OUR CHILDREN'
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron spoke at the press conference saying that there will be a lot of work to do to heal the wounds caused by residential schools, and that with more searches being conducted there will be more findings.
Cameron added that the victims of residential schools had done nothing to deserve the treatment they received.
"The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous," he said.
Searches of residential school grounds across the country will continue, but he said that the work won't stop there.
"We will find more bodies and we will not stop until we find all of our children," Cameron said.
"We will do a search of every Indian residential school site and we won't stop there. We will also search all the sanatoriums of Indian hospitals, of all the sites where people were taken and abused, tortured, neglected and murdered," he continued.
The news of unmarked graves on former residential school grounds has made headlines around the world.
"The world is watching, Canada, as we unearth the findings of genocide," Cameron said.
He added that with these findings, there is finally the evidence to support what Indigenous people have been saying about the abuse in residential schools for decades.
"Canada will be known as a nation who tried to exterminate the First Nations," Cameron said. "Now we have evidence. Evidence of what the survivors of the Indian residential schools have been saying all along for decades that they were treated without humanity."
"They were tortured, they were abused, and they seen their classmates die. They even had to dig graves for their own students."
Going forward, Cameron wants to see more than an apology. He says he wants the Canadian government and the Church to hand over the documents and records from these institutions.
"Our people deserve more than apologies and sympathies, which we are grateful for, our people deserve justice," Cameron said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted to the news saying in a statement that his heart breaks for the community.
"The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy. They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country. And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future," Trudeau said.
While the RCMP also played a role in Canada's residential school system, Saskatchewan RCMP said in an emailed statement to CTV News on Thursday that it will continue to work together with Cowessess First Nation in its next steps if the community wants RCMP involved.
"Our actions must be respectful of the immense grief the people of Cowessess First Nation continue to suffer. We know we have enforced racist and discriminatory legislation and policies," the statement said in part.
Saskatchewan RCMP said it will offer support wherever it can and "share in the sadness of our Indigenous communities."
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here