The discovery of hundreds more unmarked children's graves at another former residential school site in Western Canada is "devastating" and invites questions about any unknown graves in Southwestern Ontario, an area Indigenous leader says.
A search has revealed what are thought to be 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 km from Regina, just weeks after a similar discovery of 215 unmarked graves was made on the grounds of another former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
“I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it, to tell you the truth,” Chief Mark Peters of the Munsee-Delaware Nation, south of London, said Thursday. “It opens a lot of wounds that people may have thought were closing up.”
The grim legacy of Canada's system of church- and government-run residential schools, with their forced assimilation of Indigenous children taken from their families, and often abused, came under renewed and intense public scrutiny following the discovery of the mass grave in B.C.
But the additional discovery of hundreds more such graves in Saskatchewan, left Peters asking when it will end.
“To become aware of the numbers in Kamloops a couple of weeks ago, it felt like quite a blow,” he said. “And now, to find out about this further discovery, is just, when's it going to stop?"
Ontario was home to 18 residential schools in the 1800s and 1900s, including two in Southwestern Ontario — the Mohawk Institute on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford, and the Mount Elgin school, near London on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.
Some 1,200 children attended the Mount Elgin school, which operated from 1851 until 1946, and later as a day school after 1967. Forced into hard work on the residential school's farm, some children left poignant and painful memories of their experiences scrawled on the walls of a barn that survived the school.
At least five children are known to have died at the residential school.
The grave-site discoveries in Western Canada, Peters said, "surely makes you wonder: Is there more here, too, than what we know?"
"We have a lot of (band) members here who attended that school. People have had some pretty harsh experiences," he said.
Chief Jacqueline French of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation could not be reached for comment Thursday, but has said any search of the grounds for unknown graves would have to be a band decision made in consultation with the community.
Grand Chief Joel Abram of the London-based Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) said he "wouldn't be surprised" if there are unknown graves at the former Mount Elgin site, and that he'd support further investigation.
“We need to begin that process,” said Abram, a member of the nearby Oneida Nation of the Thames.
“I think it should be driven by the (First) Nations where they are and the survivor’s families," he said. "Consideration has to be given to families from other (First) Nations, too, because we know that kids were sent to schools away from them so they wouldn’t be likely to run away.”
The AIAI represents 20,000 Indigenous people from seven member communities, including several from Southwestern Ontario.
The residential school system operated well into the 1900s, removing about 150,000 Indigenous children from their families.
More than 4,100 children died at the schools, officials have reported.
Crisis support for survivors and others affected by residential schools is available through a 24/7 hotline, at 1-866-925-4419.
- The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press