Sask. First Nations leaders, premier call for federal government to examine residential school sites

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Sask. First Nations leaders, premier call for federal government to examine residential school sites
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron is calling for the federal government to examine every residential school site in Saskatchewan for unmarked burial sites. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron is calling for the federal government to examine every residential school site in Saskatchewan for unmarked burial sites. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing

The announcement by British Columbia's Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of an unmarked burial site at the Kamloops Indian Residential School believed to contain the remains of 215 children has spurred anger and sadness across Canada.

In Saskatchewan, leaders say the remains of more children are still undiscovered in the province.

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), called for every residential school site in Saskatchewan to be examined for unmarked burial sites following the discovery in B.C. He said children who never came home from these schools deserve better.

The discovery in Kamloops was heartbreaking, he said, calling it an "emotional roller-coaster" while speaking to Saskatoon Morning's Leisha Grebinski on Monday.

"It's a lot of heartache to have children as young as three years old just totally disrespected, disregarded, just thrown into the ground without a proper burial," Cameron said, noting burial rites are incredibly important for Indigenous communities.

"We're all devastated."

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Cameron said the recent discovery emphasized the urgent need to do similar ground-radar work in Saskatchewan, where many more children may be buried.

"It is going to happen," he said.

Cameron thanked survivors who have come forward to give guidance on where to start the searches. He said hearing those stories is an important part of the healing process.

"Many of our survivors are still healing and still grieving, and we hope to help in some way in finding closure for them," he said.

The call for action was echoed by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe on Monday afternoon. He announced his government is partnering with the FSIN to call on the federal government to take action.

At a news conference, Moe said the federal government should take the lead but that the province will help expedite the process in any way it can.

The premier said he's already spoken with the FSIN about the work that needs to be done.

"If we do have similar, unmarked sites with individuals in them here in Saskatchewan, we want to work as quickly as we can to identify who may be in those sites and start to provide the first steps of closure for some families," Moe said. "These are families that are our neighbours and our friends that are missing brothers, sisters, cousins, relatives, friends."

Moe also called for people in Saskatchewan to educate themselves and their children on the historical and current impact of Canada's residential school system.

"This most certainly is one of, if not the largest stain on Canadian history, and it is right here in Saskatchewan," he said.

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'Sometimes, there was total silence': survivor

The Cowessess First Nation, located in southeast Saskatchewan, already has plans to examine a burial site located at the Marieval Indian Residential School this summer.

Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme said the re-examination is an important step toward members of the community being able to heal. Delorme said only one-third of the graves at the site are marked, and the First Nation wants to identify the rest using ground-radar technology.

Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme says his community is preparing to use ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked remains at the Marieval Indian Residential School.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme says his community is preparing to use ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked remains at the Marieval Indian Residential School.(Bryan Eneas/CBC)

This is important to Barry Kennedy, a survivor who attended the residential school on Cowessess First Nation for more than four years after he was taken from his family on the Carry the Kettle First Nation.

Kennedy said he recalls being beaten by staff at the school and said that all he felt as a five-year-old child was fear and loneliness.

"That first night, I got to experience fear in a multitude of different ways," he said. "You can hear the fear. You can feel the fear and you can smell the fear."

Kennedy said he still wonders what kind of person he'd be today if he didn't have his identity and culture robbed from him as a child.

Even now, more than 50 years later, he said, the memories of the school are fresh in his mind. He still marvels at the resilience the children had.

"Being five years old, you don't know anything about sex. You don't know anything about pedophiles, you don't know anything about rape, you don't know anything about beatings," Kennedy said. "There's no one there to help you."

He said some of the people who were responsible for looking after the children, referred to as "the keepers," would sometimes take boys into a separate room where they could be heard screaming and crying as they were abused.

"Sometimes, there was total silence," Kennedy said, calling the residential schools a "playground for pedophiles."

He said he recalls the night when one of his friends, Brian, was taken. The young boy never returned, and Kennedy said he still wonders what happened.

"He just vanished," he said. "Knowing what I do to this day, I would say the possibility of finding Brian in one of those graves is very likely."

Barry Kennedy, a survivor of the Marieval Indian Residential School located on the Cowessess First Nation, says he's pleased the First Nation is going to be examining the site for unmarked burials.
Barry Kennedy, a survivor of the Marieval Indian Residential School located on the Cowessess First Nation, says he's pleased the First Nation is going to be examining the site for unmarked burials.(Facebook.com)

Kennedy said it's important for him to share his experiences to ensure no future generations have to endure them.

"These mass graves all exist because of one thing, because these children were taken," he said. "These children were starved. Experiments were being done on them. They died from loneliness, they died from physical abuse and, if you would bring that into context today, you would say murdered."

Bobby Cameron said any work examining residential school sites in the province will be rooted in ceremony and be done slowly, carefully and with survivors at front of mind.

"We're First Nations people. We're survivors. We're resilient. We're strong, and the power of prayer and ceremony will get us through this."

In a statement, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs said the discovery of 215 bodies is a reminder of the harms families, residential school survivors and communities have suffered and continue to suffer.

"This is further evidence of the ongoing tragedy that is experienced across generations stemming from the legacy of the Indian residential school system," the statement said.

"We remain committed to supporting survivors, their families and communities to locate and memorialize through ceremonies the children who died or went missing while attending residential schools."

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those 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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