Tk'emlúps offers support after unmarked graves found at Saskatchewan residential school site

·4 min read

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is expressing its support after the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan.

Cowessess First Nation announced on Thursday morning (June 24) the findings from a search that began earlier this month with ground-penetrating radar detecting the graves at the former Marieval Residential School, located about 160 kilometres east of Regina.

“We mourn the confirmation of the hundreds of unmarked graves in Cowessess First Nation. We wish to acknowledge the leadership and truth that Chief Cadmus Delorme and Cowessess Knowledge Keeper Florence Sparvier, as well as FSIN [Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations] Regional Chief Bobby Cameron showed the world this morning at their press conference,” a statement from the Tk’emlups Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir and council reads.

On May 27, the Tk’emlups band revealed it discovered what are believed to be the graves of 215 children who were students of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School with the help of a ground-penetrating radar survey. The findings sparked international attention and outcry and has led to other First Nations endeavouring to conduct similar searches.

“We regret that we know well what Cowessess First Nation is going through, given the preliminary findings we shared with the world,” the Tk’emlúps statement continued. “It has been a heavy burden, but one we carry with love, honour and respect for the Kamloops Indian Residential School children – who we refer to as Le Estcwéý (The Missing) that are in our caretakership.”

The band’s statement said that, as with Cowessess First Nation, for Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, this is only phase one and more investigation is needed.

The band reiterated it will be presenting a report on its own preliminary findings soon.

“We will be making some significant announcements regarding Kamloops Indian Residential School Le Estcwéý (The Missing) in the near future. We will be sure to give due notice to the public and media,” the statement reads.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc chief and council are currently declining any media requests as they continue to work toward sharing the report and other related announcements, the band said in an email.

According to Cowessess First Nation, the 751 graves are the singlemost found at one site in Canada to date.

During a video conference call announcing the findings on Thursday, Delorme said work will be done so a name is placed on each of the unmarked graves.

He said the radar search was done in collaboration with Saskatchewan Polytechnic school and has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate, but noted there are at least 600 graves. He said stories from elders and survivors indicated the location of the graves.

Delorme called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools — something the Tk’emlups band has also asked for since its own discovery.

While the Kamloops Diocese and Vancouver Archdiocese, along with numerous Catholic congregations across Canada — including the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Catholic order that ran the Kamloops Indian Residential School — have made formal apologies, the pope and Vatican have not done so.

There have been reports that Pope Benedict XVI apologized when he met in 2009 with then-Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine, but no apology was offered during that meeting, as confirmed by Fontaine at that time. Pope Benedict noted his “sorrow” with the abuses that occurred in the residential school system, but did not formally apologize.

“We, too, have called upon the Pope for an apology and agree with the statement made by Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme. An apology is but one of the many stages of the healing journey,” the Tk’emlups statement reads. “We stand with Cowessess First Nation in mourning as well as in deep gratitude for the survivors and intergenerational survivors who held fast to the truth of the unmarked graves. Cowessess, the people in Cowessess’s care in the unmarked graves, the families and communities affected, will be part of our prayers and ceremonies.”

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools between the 1860s and 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented stories from survivors and families and issued a report in 2015.

The report detailed mistreatment at the schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and said there were at least 4,100 deaths, 51 of which have been documented at the Kamloops school before the May discovery.

The Cowessess school was built in 1899 by Roman Catholic missionaries. Delorme said it closed in 1996.

Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kamloops This Week

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