With the help of ground-penetrating radar, the bodies of 751 Indigenous people in unmarked graves outside a former residential school in Saskatchewan were recently discovered.
The Cowessess First Nation revealed the heartbreaking discovery on June 24. The bodies were found on June 2.
“This is not a mass gravesite. These are unmarked graves,” said Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme. “The Catholic church representatives removed the headstones, and today they are unmarked graves.”
Delorme said the community is in mourning, and families are in pain.
“Every one of our Cowessess members has a family member buried there. The pain we are feeling is real,” said Delorme.
The Marieval Indian Residential School was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1899 to 1997 in the area where Cowessess is now located in southeastern Saskatchewan. It has yet to be confirmed if all of the remains are linked to the school.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report estimated 6,000 children died in Canada’s residential school system in the 19th and 20th centuries. It detailed how Indigenous children were often forcefully taken from their families to attend 130 compulsory residential schools across the country.
In total, the radar marked 751 hits, but Delorme said the machine isn’t perfect. He estimates there is a 10 to 15 percent margin of error with the process.
Delorme said it has not yet been determined if all the unmarked graves belong to children.
“Each of these hits will be assessed by a technical team, and we will get a verified number in the coming weeks,” said Delorme.
The discovery comes nearly a month after 251 bodies were found in unmarked graves outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The Ontario government has since pledged $10-million over three years to help First Nations locate and commemorate unmarked burial sites across the province.
In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “terribly saddened” by the discovery in Saskatchewan. Trudeau said it was “a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced.”
“No child should have ever been taken away from their families and communities, robbed of their language, culture, and identity,” read the statement. “No child should have spent their precious youth subjected to the terrible loneliness and abuse. No child should have spent their last moments in a place where they lived in fear, never to see their loved ones again.”
Trudeau said the trauma suffered by the Indigenous is Canada’s responsibility to bear, adding Ottawa will continue to provide First Nations with the funding to “bring these terrible wrongs to light.”
One Ridgetown resident felt she needed to bring awareness to this tragedy and has hung a wreath on the ‘Welcome to Ridgetown’ sign at the East end of Ridgetown. She wanted no recognition for the gesture, and as she hung the wreath, she solemnly placed children’s shoes under it. “I just want these children to be acknowledged and remembered,” she said. “It is just unbelievable what has happened.”
Everyone is welcome to show their support by placing shoes, bears, etc., at the memorial site.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News