The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan says it has found hundreds of unmarked burial sites near a former residential school.
According to a media advisory released on Wednesday, the Cowessess First Nation completed a radar scan of the area surrounding the Marieval Indian Residential School, making a “horrific and shocking discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves.”
“The number of unmarked graves will be the most significantly substantial to date in Canada,” the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) said in the advisory.
The Cowessess First Nation is expected to make an official announcement and provide more details on the discovery on Thursday morning.
The news comes after the remains of 215 children were discovered at former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. last month.
Niigaan James Sinclair, an Anishinaabe writer and associate professor at the University of Manitoba, says the new discovery of unmarked graves in Saskatchewan confirm stories told in the community for decades.
“The federal government was invited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 to investigate sites at residential schools and they refuse to do so at that point. This is just a long time coming in which communities have been seeking to find out where their children are,” Sinclair told us on Wednesday.
Sinclair said the trauma of Canada’s residential school system is something First Nations communities continue to deal with.
“Every Indigenous community in this country has a story of lost children, has a story of children who went to the schools and never came home,” he said.
With 146 residential schools across Canada, Sinclair said the finding is not surprising to Indigenous people, and there are likely more undiscovered burial sites.
“It’s a story that I think Canadians are surprised about because they are not prepared for what has been the truth of this country, which is that this is the kind of abuses that were perpetrated against Indigenous people — my people — for over a century and a half in these places,” Sinclair said.
According to the University of Regina, the Marieval residential school operated from 1899 to 1997 in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Marieval was run by the Roman Catholic Church until Cowessess First Nation took over its operations in 1981.
The residential school was later demolished in 1999 and replaced with a day school.
The Cowessess First Nation, located 164 kilometres east of Regina, began radar scanning of the school grounds and surrounding area on June 1 in an effort to identify and memorialize victims of the institution.
The community received a federal grant to work with an underground radar detection team from Saskatchewan Polytechnic.
Cowessess started planning its radar search two years ago, but its chief says it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme spoke about the search during a virtual meeting with Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller on June 18.
Delorme said in the meeting that the Roman Catholic Church used an adjacent cemetery to bury school victims. However, he says the First Nation had to expand their search four times after elders shared oral stories of the school, saying the burials spread past the cemetery.
While the discovery of these burial sites is difficult for “all Canadians,” Delorme said they are a necessary “truth” that must be acknowledged to get to reconciliation.
“The Kamloops story is only one of many that are about to come out,” Delorme said during the meeting.
Started in the 1880s, residential schools were funded by the federal government and run by Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches in an effort to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society.
It’s estimated that more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the state-funded schools where they were often subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
While Canada formally apologized for its residential school system in 2008, the federal government has implemented only eight of 94 Calls to Action issued in 2015’s final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
The commission recommended a “national strategy for the documentation, maintenance, commemoration and protection of residential school cemeteries.” However, funding for this was denied by the federal government in 2009.
‘I FEEL IT, I WAS THERE’: SURVIVORS REACT
The since the discovery in Kamloops, there has been mounting calls for the federal government and Catholic Church to investigate more potential school burial sites.
With records being either destroyed or withheld, many children who went to — and died — at Canada’s residential schools are undocumented.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced on June 2 that the federal government is now ready to distribute $27 million in pre-announced funding to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools.
On Wednesday, Alberta announced that it had created an $8-million fund to aid the search for unmarked graves linked to residential schools, while the Ontario government announced last week that it will invest $10 million into identifying unmarked burial sites. Ontario said the funding will also include mental health resources for residential school survivors.
While provinces take steps to find and honour Indigenous children who died at residential schools, Indigenous leaders say each time unmarked burial sites are uncovered, it re-traumatizes survivors and their families.
If Canada had provided funding sooner to look for these burial sites, residential school survivor Evelyn Korkmaz said some of this trauma may have been spared.
“People just don’t disappear into thin air, we knew they were buried somewhere on our residential school property, but no one believed us when we told them,” Korkmaz said in an interview with us on Wednesday.
“Why does it take 215 bodies to appear for people to believe us?” she added.
Korkmaz said it would help residential school survivors heal if the federal government “admitted that it committed genocide” against Indigenous people with the implementation of these institutions.
Survivor Elizabeth Sackanay told us that the abuse she endured at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. still haunts her to this day.
“What I went through in residential school, I wouldn’t want anyone to go through,” Sackanay said in an interview on Wednesday.
When she was at the school, Sackanay said kids used to disappear, sometimes overnight, and the priests would tell the other children that they had simply gone home.
“How can they go home in the middle of the night?” she said. “When they are going to bed when you go to bed, and they’re gone in the morning?”
Reacting to the news of the unmarked graves in Cowessess, Sackanay said it makes her want to cry.
“They can’t tell you how it feels. I feel it, I was there,” she said.
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.
Before her mother died, Sackanay said she apologized for not being able to prevent her daughter from being taken to a residential school.
“‘I couldn’t help you, I’m very sorry.’ Those were her last words [to me],” Sackanay said.
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: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.