Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Ground penetrating radar has found 751 unmarked graves in a 44,000-square metre defined area of a Roman Catholic gravesite at the former Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.
“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” said Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme in a news conference this morning that garnered international attention. “Over the past years the oral stories of our Elders, of our survivors, and friends of our survivors have told us stories that knew these burials were here.”
The residential school was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1898 until 1996 when it was closed. The gravesite was operated by the church until Cowessess First Nation took it over in the 1970s.
A technical team began work at the site to locate remains on June 2. The graves are one metre by one metre apart, said Delorme. He noted that the technical team said there is a 10 to 15 per cent margin for error on the number of grave sites.
Children from southeastern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba are likely to have attended the institution, said Delorme, depending on if the Indian agent or priests on the reserves were Catholic. He said oral stories confirm the children came from Treaty 2 and Treaty 4 areas.
He said there were once headstones on the graves, but they were removed by Catholic Church representatives in the 1960s.
“Removing headstones is a crime in this country. We are treating this like a crime scene at the moment and we will know more as we continue our research,” said Delorme.
The chief said he had spoken to the Catholic Church’s local archdiocese and has “full faith” that records pertaining to the grave site will be turned over. He believes some of those records are now stored in Winnipeg. Oral stories and community written records will be used to identify those buried.
“What we are going to be doing now is we are going to be putting names to these unmarked graves. We want to honour our loved ones that lay there today. 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, because the more we put names to them, the more that it is going to reopen some of the pain that many endured at Marieval residential school... The gravesite is there and it is real,” said Delorrme.
The intent is to eventually erect a monument at the site.
Delorme said the Pope needs to apologize, which is “one stage of many in the healing journey.”
The location of these graves is the first phase of a multi-phased project being undertaken by Cowessess First Nation. The first phase is being done in partnership with the Saskatchewan Polytechnic. It will also include finding those who were buried outside the gravesite because they weren’t baptised, which includes babies not old enough to be baptised.
The second phase will be other locations on the First Nation that oral histories indicate are likely gravesites.
The unmarked graves found at Marieval come barely a month after the remains of 215 children in a mass unmarked grave was found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“We are seeing the results of the genocide that Canada committed here … on our treaty lands,” said Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Indigenous Sovereign Nations, which represents the 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
He pledged to continue searching for graves at other residential schools, sanatoriums and Indian hospitals and any other sites where Indigenous people were “taken and abused, tortured, neglected and murdered.”
“The world is watching Canada as we unearth the findings of genocide. We had concentration camps here. We had them here in Canada, in Saskatchewan. They were called Indian residential schools. Canada will be known as the nation who tried to exterminate the First Nations. Now we have evidence. Evidence of what the survivors of Indian residential schools have been saying all along for decades…. Canada will have to work with us in the spirit of reconciliation,” said Cameron.
Delorme said ministers Marc Miller (Indigenous Services) and Carolyn Bennett (Crown-Indigenous Relations) had reached out to him “in a good way” when the findings at the gravesite started to become public.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement today saying he was “terribly saddened” by the discovery and reiterated his government’s commitment of the resources needed to “bring these terrible wrongs to light.”
“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," said Trudeau in his statement.