Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada and Indigenous leaders say they will find more at other sites.
Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said they had found at least 600 graves after radar detected 751 “hits” in a field on the school grounds.
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“This is not a mass gravesite. These are unmarked graves,” he said in a news conference on Tuesday.
Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations said the discovery, coupled with the recent discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Colombia, shows “genocide” committed by Canada.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada determined in 2015 that more than 150,000 Indigenous children had been forced into residential schools. Cameron said on Tuesday there are many burial sites like at Marieval and Kamloops and that searches will continue.
“We will find more bodies and we will not stop until we find all our children.”
“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,” he said.
“Now we have evidence.”
The gravesite at Marieval was administered by the Roman Catholic Church, Delorme said. Over the years, oral stories from Indigenous elders talked of the burials.
“In 1960, there may have been marks on these graves,” Delorme said. “The Catholic Church representatives removed these headstones and today they are unmarked graves.”
Removing gravestones is a crime in Canada, Delorme said, and the area is being treated as a crime scene.
“We cannot confirm they are all children. But there are oral stories that there are adults in this gravesite, as well.”
Delorme said the ground-penetrating radar technology used to discover the graves had an error rate of roughly 10 to 15 percent. There were 715 “hits”, which means “at least 600” graves, Delorme explained.
The discovery comes weeks after the remains of 215 children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described that discovery as heartbreaking.
Elder Florence Sparver recalled her time at the Marieval boarding school. She said the Catholic nuns were “rough” with Indigenous children and barred them from keeping their customs.
“We had our own way of honouring ourselves and Mother Earth,” Sparver said, remember that Indigenous “blessings” were banned.
Canada’s history of boarding schools for Indigenous children has made national news following the Kamloops discovery.
“They would just start beating you and lose control and hurl you against the wall, throw you on the floor, kick you, punch you,” Geraldine Bob, a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, said about her experience there in a report (PDF).
Kamloops was also administered by the Catholic Church. Pope Francis expressed “pain” and offered condolences after the “upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children”. But he did not accept responsibility for his church’s actions.
“The pope needs to apologise for what has happened to the Marieval residential school” to help survivors and descendants heal, Delorme said.
“An apology is one stage of many in the healing journey.”