Indigenous Groups Find over 600 Unmarked Graves at Former Canadian ‘Residential School’

Signs are pictured at a memorial outside the Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia., Sunday, June, 13, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP

Indigenous leaders in Canada reported on Thursday they have discovered another 600 unmarked graves at a site once used as a “residential school” where indigenous children were forcibly interned.

The discovery of 215 children’s remains at another residential school last month rocked Canada and prompted worldwide expressions of disgust and dismay.

The new discovery occurred at the former location of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, about 85 miles from the provincial capital of Regina. As with the discovery of 215 bodies at Kamloops, British Columbia, in May, the graves were found using ground-penetrating radar scans.

Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation said on Thursday that 751 “hits” were returned by the radar scan, with an estimated margin of error of ten percent. 

The identity of the people buried at the Marieval site, and their ages at the time of death, is not yet certain. Some of the victims interred at Kamloops were children as young as three years old. Delorme said the Cowessess have “oral stories that there are adults in this gravesite,” as well as children.

“We want to make sure when we tell our story that we’re not trying to make numbers sound bigger than they are. I like to say over 600, just to be assured,” Delorme said, promising a more precise count once the data is thoroughly analyzed.

According to Delorme, the graves originally had markers, but they were removed by the Roman Catholic management of the school. He called on Pope Francis to apologize and for the Roman Catholic Church to give a full accounting of its actions at the schools, which were largely run by Catholic missionaries.

“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” Delorme said.

“In 1960, there may have been marks on these graves. The Catholic Church representatives removed these headstones and today they are unmarked graves,” he charged, noting that removing grave markers is a crime under Canadian law. 

The Marieval site still has a properly marked cemetery, which the Cowessess First Nation has been managing since the 1970s, in addition to the unmarked graves. The school building was demolished, but the church and rectory remain.

“The incredible burden of the past is still with us, and the truth of that past needs to come out, however painful,” Archbishop of Regina Don Bolen wrote to the Cowessess nation on Thursday, pledging to “turn that apology into meaningful concrete acts.”

The Canadian government has requested a papal apology and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a personal appeal to Pope Francis for an apology several years ago, but the pope has not obliged. Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” by the lack of a formal apology, and full disclosure of Church documents on the residential schools, in early June.

“It’s not showing the leadership that quite frankly is supposed to be at the core of our faith, of forgiveness, of responsibility, of acknowledging truth,” Trudeau said, suggesting his government might use certain “tools” at its disposal to compel the release of documents. 

Although the “residential schools” are sometimes described as “boarding schools” in U.S. media reports, they were more akin to internment camps or indoctrination centers – a fact the world’s most heinous current operator of concentration camps, the Chinese Communist Party, is eagerly exploiting for political gain as it clashes with the Canadian government. 

The goal of the residential schools was to forcibly assimilate indigenous children through such measures as forbidding them to speak their native language. Punishment could include severe physical abuse. Even in the final days of the residential school system in the 1990s, students reported being forced to cut their hair and being addressed by numbers instead of names.

“They made us believe we didn’t have souls. They were putting us down as people, so we learned to not like who we were,” former student Florence Sparvier said at a press conference on Thursday. Sparvier said the nuns taught indigenous students to think of themselves as “heathens.”

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2008 found that about 150,000 indigenous children were held at roughly 150 residential schools between 1883 and 1996, when the last of them closed. About 41,000 of those children went missing. The committee described the school system as an attempt at “cultural genocide.”

Indigenous leaders believe the number of children killed at the schools was much higher, possibly over 10,000. The radar scans of residential school sites are part of an effort to count the dead more precisely.

“We will find more bodies and we will not stop until we find all our children,” Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations said when announcing the Marieval discovery on Thursday.

“The world is watching Canada as we unearth the findings of genocide. We had concentration camps here. We had them here in Canada, in Saskatchewan, they were called Indian residential schools. Now we have evidence,” Cameron said.

“Our actions must be respectful of the immense grief the people of Cowessess First Nation continue to suffer. We know we have enforced racist and discriminatory legislation and policies,” said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), indicating they would let the Cowessess decide how to proceed with investigating the Marieval graves.

The Canadian federal government on Tuesday announced that it will provide $3.9 million in funding for indigenous communities to search for more graves, adding to a previous grant of $1.6 million.

Trudeau said on Thursday that he has spoken with Delorme and Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, about the new finds.

“I let them know that our government and all Canadians stand with them following the horrific discovery of unmarked graves at the former Marieval Residential School,” Trudeau said.

“We’ll continue to be there for the people of Cowessess First Nation and for Indigenous peoples across the country – and we’re committed to working together in true partnership to right these historic wrongs and advance reconciliation in concrete, meaningful, and lasting ways,” Trudeau said.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Tuesday the United States will begin investigating similar Native American school sites for evidence of mass or unmarked graves. Interior Department officials estimated the program would take years to complete.

“At no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects. We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life, and the lasting consequences of the schools,” Haaland said at the midyear conference of the National Congress of American Indians.

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