The total number of graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School is expected to be over three times higher than the 215 discovered recently in Kamloops
A Saskatchewan First Nation says it has made the “horrific and shocking discovery” of hundreds of unmarked graves — many believed to be children — near a former residential school, with a total expected to be over three times higher than the 215 discovered recently in Kamloops, B.C., according to a source briefed on the file.
Leaders of the Cowessess First Nation, a roughly two hour drive east of Regina, are expected to reveal details of the macabre discovery near what was once the Marieval Indian Residential School during a press conference Thursday morning, as well as the latest count of newly-identified remains.
“The number of unmarked graves will be the most significantly substantial to date in Canada,” says an advisory published Wednesday evening by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
The remains are in unmarked graves in a communal gravesite first used in 1885 but eventually taken over by the Marieval Indian Residential School, founded and operated by the Roman Catholic Church beginning in 1899 on what was then the Marieval Reserve.
Administration of the school was handed over to the federal government in 1969 and then the Cowessess First Nation in 1987 before being closed in 1997. Everything but the church, rectory and cemetery was demolished shortly after, according to National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation records.
The First Nation teamed up with an underground radar detection team from Saskatchewan Polytechnic to begin the search just over three weeks ago. In an interview in late May, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme told the Regina Leader-Post that he did not know how many people’s remains might be discovered. It is estimated that only one third of graves are marked.
“The pain is real, the pain is there and the pain hasn’t gone away. As we heal, every Cowessess citizen has a family member in that gravesite. To know there’s some unmarked, it continues the pain,” Delorme told the newspaper, adding that the goal was to “identify, to mark and to build a monument in honouring and recognizing the bodies that lay (there).”
The discovery comes less than a month after the “unthinkable” discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children — some as young as three years old — in unmarked graves near the Kamloops Indian Residential School outside Kamloops, B.C.
James Daschuk, a University of Regina health and Indigenous history researcher, applauded chief Delorme’s decision to pursue these searches despite the “horrific” findings likely to emerge.
“As terrible, and I mean absolutely freaking terrible as this is, what we’re seeing is the community taking their story back,” said Daschuk in an interview Wednesday. “I think this is this is going to be a pretty important time for healing for the affected communities. But this should also be a serious time for reflection and then action on that reflection for all Canadians.”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) determined that at least 3,200 Indigenous children died while attending residential school, and that general practice was “not to send the bodies of students who died at schools to their home communities.”
“Many students who went to residential school never returned. They were lost to their families. They died at rates that were far higher than those experienced by the general school-aged population. Their parents were often uninformed of their sickness and death. They were buried away from their families in long-neglected graves,” reads the 2015 TRC report.
Students at Marieval Indian Residential School were no exception to that, according to information published in Shattering the Silence: The Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan, a historical report published by the University of Regina’s faculty of education.
For example, reports dating back to 1919 note that authorities expected school staff to “physically dominate students” and that an Indian Agent refused to transfer a student to another school because he feared that “the other boys may form the opinion that the Brother [in charge of discipline at Cowessess] is afraid of the big boys.”
In 1945, the University of Regina report chronicles how a female student’s hair was forcefully cut into a “usual school girl bob” as a punishment for attempting to escape the building to “meet with local boys.”
“Angered by this treatment, the girl’s parents came to the school and withdrew her and her two sisters. An altercation developed between the mother and one of the supervisors” which led to both parents being charged and convicted in court. An Indian Affairs official then threatened to send the student to Reform School if she did not “behave.”