Descendent of Sask. residential school survivors organizes Edmonton rally for 751 unmarked graves

·3 min read
Robert Flamant organized the demonstration Saturday at the Alberta Legislature. (Nathan Gross/CBC - image credit)
Robert Flamant organized the demonstration Saturday at the Alberta Legislature. (Nathan Gross/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A small group gathered at the Alberta Legislature on Saturday to raise awareness for the legacy of the residential school system in the wake of hundreds of unmarked graves found in southern Saskatchewan.

Earlier this week, Cowessess First Nation reported a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

Robert Flamant, whose family hails from the Cowessess First Nation, organized Saturday's event that brought together about 30 community members and supporters.

"When we heard the news, it struck me very deeply," Flamant said, adding that where the graves were detected was used for parking when attending services.

"We did not know these children were there, very few families on that reserve actually knew. It wasn't widely known."

Saturday's demonstration was a way to let those children be heard, after their voices were silenced by politicians and media alike, he said.

Flamant has dealt with intergenerational trauma first-hand, as his mother's experience at Marieval made it difficult for her to raise a family. He has started therapy but previously struggled with addiction, he said.

"I did not know how to deal with it," he said, imploring others to seek out resources and ask for help.

"We just want everybody to know you're not alone."

Sheila Isaac, another member of the Cowessess First Nation, also attended the rally. She was there for her grandmother, survivors and those children lost.

"I'm tired of being told our history isn't true," Isaac said. "I'm tired of being told that we need to be quiet."

Nathan Gross/CBC
Nathan Gross/CBC

Isaac's grandmother lived in fear for the rest of her life after being forced from her home and taken to a residential school, and she was outsider in her own community, said Isaac.

Her grandmother went through more heartache watching her own children be taken and put in the institutions, she said.

"Her story needs to be told."

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has identified 139 residential schools across Canada. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken to the federally-sponsored institutions from the 1870s to 1996.

Alberta had 25 residential schools — more than any other province.

Those figures exclude residential schools that operated without federal support, such as those run by religious orders or provincial governments.

The final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) notes many survivors spoke of children who never returned from residential schools. Incomplete records mean the total death toll is currently unknown, but the TRC estimates it could be 6,000 or higher.

Calls to Action 71 through 76 focus on missing children and identifying burial sites.

"We're not looking for pity, we're looking for understanding," Faye Hunter said, quoting from Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorum.

Parents never learned to nurture

Hunter's mother was taken away at eight years old and beaten for being unable to speak English. When Hunter was growing up, hugs and expressions of love were unknown to the family.

"The love and the nurturing aspect of any woman or man was taken from them by the way they were treated," Hunter said.

"When I look back at my parents — and especially my mom and the trauma she would've went through — it's no wonder our people suffer."

Hunter said her parents probably never learned how to raise children but loved theirs as much as they could.

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

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others 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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