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Sask. First Nation announces discovery of 751 unmarked graves near former residential school

WARNING: This story contains details and imagery some readers may find distressing.

The Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding Thursday of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area where Cowessess is now located, about 140 kilometres east of Regina. Children from First Nations in southeast Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba were sent to the school.

The First Nation took over the school’s cemetery from the Catholic Church in the 1970s.

Earlier this month Cowessess started using ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves. It was not immediately clear if all the remains are connected to the residential school. 

Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme spoke at a virtual news conference Thursday morning. 

“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” Delorme said. 

WATCH| Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme speaks about the discovery:

Stressing that what has been found is not a mass grave site but unmarked graves, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme explained what led to the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School located about 140 kilometres east of Regina, which operated from 1899 to 1997. 8:35

Delorme said there may have at one point been markers for the graves. He said the Roman Catholic church, which oversaw the cemetery, may have removed markers at some point in the 1960s.

He said it was not immediately clear if all of the unmarked graves belonged to children, but that there were oral stories within Cowesses First Nation about both children and adults being there. 

He said some of the remains discovered may be people who attended the church or were from nearby towns.

Delorme said some 44,000 square metres of area were searched by technical teams from Saskatchewan Polytechnic, which the First Nation partnered with for the search. 

Teams were unable to confirm if there were more remains, but said there were 751 “recorded hits” at the site and noted there could be more than one set of remains at each “hit.” He said the penetrating radar work has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate. 

Technical teams would be able to provide a verified number in the coming weeks, Delorme said. 

Thursday’s announcement marked “Phase 1” of the First Nation’s search efforts, he said. The community would continue  search efforts in the area based on oral history.

Last month the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced the discovery of a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School that preliminary findings indicate contains the remains of 215 children.

Delorme said the community wants to put names to the people in the graves in the coming months. He said the community would be treating the site “like a crime scene.”

He said he would like to see a monument built at the site that includes the names of those identified.

‘A crime against humanity’: FSIN

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron said Thursday that what happened was a “crime against humanity” and that the findings were just the start in terms of finding unmarked graves in Saskatchewan. The FSIN represents Saskatchewan’s First Nations.

“There will be hundreds more unmarked graves and burial sites located across our First Nations land at the sites of former Indian Residential Schools,” Cameron said in a prepared statement.

“There are thousands of families across our Treaty territories that have been waiting for their children to come home. Saskatchewan had the highest number of residential schools and highest number of survivors.”

He said the FSIN would work to get every site in Saskatchewan — schools, sanatoriums and other such locations — searched and victims in those locations identified.

WATCH| FSIN Chief Cameron said he expects there will be similar discoveries:

Referring to the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School 140 kilometres east of Regina, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said he expects there will be similar discoveries made at other residential school sites. He called the residential school system ‘a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations people.’ (Credit: Cowessess First Nation) 1:24

Cameron called on all levels of government to support First Nations efforts in their efforts at those sites.

‘The pope needs to apologize’

Cowessess knowledge keeper Florence Sparvier, 80, attended the Marieval Indian Residential School and shared some of her experiences at the school during the news conference Thursday. 

She said she was taken to the school by her parents. At that time, parents who didn’t send their children to school had to spend time in jail, she said. 

She said it was “pounded” into students that the cultures they learned at home were wrong. 

“They told us what to say. They told us about a new being that was supposed to be our ultimate saviour,” Sparvier said. 

“They told us our people, our parents, our grandparents didn’t have a way to be spiritual, because we were all heathens…. We learned how to not like who we were.”

WATCH| Residential school religious leaders ‘very condemning’ of Indigenous people, survivor says:

Florence Sparvier, an 80-year old survivor of Saskatchewan’s Marieval Indian Residential School says a lot of the pain that Indigenous people feel comes from the raw mean-spiritedness that permeated life in residential schools. 3:41

Delorme called for a papal apology. 

“The pope needs to apologize,” he said. “An apology is one stage in the healing journey.”

Delorme noted the Canadian government is making some progress on the residential school file and reconciliation efforts, but said “they can move quicker.”

FSIN Chief Cameron said he would like the government of Canada and the churches that ran residential schools to release all records associated to residential schools in the country. He also called for a full, independent and public review into the deaths of First Nations children and people in Canada.

“Our people deserve more than apologies or sympathies, which we are grateful for. Our people deserve justice,” he said. 

“Canada can start by handing over all of those records. The churches can start by handing over all of those records.” 

Delorme said he’d engaged in discussions with the regional archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, who had visited the site a few times. 

The regional archdiocese, he said, committed to helping the First Nation achieve its goals, but Delorme said the band hadn’t reached out to anyone higher up in the organization. 

On Thursday, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said penetrating radar equipment had 751 ‘hits’ for unmarked graves at the cemetery near the Marieval Indian Residential School. (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation)

Oral history, he said, tells of records being removed from Cowessess in the 1970s and taken to Winnipeg, where they were stored.

“We have full faith that the Roman Catholic Church will release our records,” he said.

“They have not told us no. We just don’t have them yet.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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