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Survivors, community honour 751 unmarked graves at Sask. residential school site with vigil

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Seven-hundred and fifty-one lights spanned the entirety of the unmarked graves discovered on Cowessess First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan where a large group of people, many wearing orange clothes, gathered on Saturday night in honour of the remains.

An elder in the community who spoke at the vigil likened the finding of 751 unmarked graves to a scab that had been “slowly healing” being ripped off.

Speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, the elder explained to those in attendance that the journey to healing for those affected by the discovery is ongoing and long from over.

Band leaders say the unmarked graves belong to children, teens, band members and others from outside the community. Many of the remains are believed to be Indigenous children who were taken from their family and forced to attend the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

The lights were placed on the unmarked graves in an effort co-ordinated by the Cowessess Youth Council and staff from the Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, with a single light placed beside each of the flags now marking where the ground-penetrating radar technology located remains earlier this week.

The discovery has spurred anger and sadness for many across Canada and around the globe as it came just weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. indicated the remains of an estimated 215 children were on site.

Prayers answered

The sound of drums and voices carrying traditional song could be heard at the gathering, which took place under a blue prairie sky. Rooted in ceremony and tradition, the event started with a smudge and prayer, with those in attendance marking a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m. CT. Following the moment of silence, members of the community and band leadership spoke to those in attendance.

During a prayer delivered in both Cree and English, the kookum, or grandmother in Cree, said for years many in the community have been praying and asking for these remains to be found, and now those prayers have been answered. 

cowessess first nation vigil
Vigil attendees wore orange shirts in memory of the people whose remains are housed in the unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former residential school. (Mickey Djruic/CBC)

Cowessess First Nation, located about 140 kilometres east of Regina, spans over 21,000 hectares and is made up of 3,266 band members — with 597 who live on reserve. Earlier this month, the First Nation started using ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves.

Chief Cadmus Delorme has been the community’s voice following the discovery. He said there were some grave markings at the site before the investigation began, but they only make up one-third of the suspected graves.

There are more unmarked graves at other forced assimilation sites in the province. 

Following the discovery of the remains in Kamloops, B.C., both the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called on the federal government to search all of Saskatchewan’s sites. FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said what happened in Canada’s residential schools “a crime against humanity.” 

“There are thousands of families across our Treaty territories that have been waiting for their children to come home. Saskatchewan had the highest number of residential schools and highest number of survivors,” said Cameron, noting they want all Saskatchewan sites — schools, sanatoriums and other such locations — searched and victims identified.

The efforts to find the unmarked graves on the Cowessess First Nation saw roughly 44,000 square metres searched by technical teams, resulting in a total of 751 recorded hits. Delorme said the penetrating radar work has a 10 to 15 per cent error rate, but there is a possibility that there may be more than one set of remains in each hit. The First Nation expects the total number of remains to be verified in the coming weeks. 

It’s heartwarming to me, because they were unknown this whole time, but now they’re being acknowledged.– Coun. Jonathan Z. Lerat

Jonathan Z. Lerat, a councillor with the Cowessess First Nation, said the vigil will be important for community members as they work to heal, but also for those in the surrounding communities, as it’s not only band members who are buried in the site. 

He thinks the discovery on Cowessess will help the rest of the world understand the scope of suffering inflicted through the schools, saying it is important they are recognized. 

“It’s heartwarming to me because they were unknown this whole time, but now they’re being acknowledged,” he said. 

Support offered from across Sask. 

Members of the Indigenous community in Regina also made the journey to Cowessess to show support. Star Andreas, an activist in Regina who is a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation, said before her departure, it’s only a matter of time until more mass graves are discovered.

“They are going to find more babies. They haven’t even searched the other ones yet, but they will.”

Andreas, through her activism, was instrumental in the recent removal of a statue of Father Hugonard, who founded the Lebret Indian Industrial Residential School, setting up a camp at the statue site while calling for the province’s sites to be searched.

She says today those same colonial systems that oppressed and assimilated her family, are still alive in other forms.

“Residential schools, now foster care,” she said. “The same thing is going on and it’s going to stop.”

Many Indigenous leaders, including Delorme, have repeatedly called on Pope Francis to make a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to a 2017 conversation he had with Pope Francis “to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil.”

cowessess first nation vigil
Solar lamps were placed on each of the unmarked graves where remains were located by ground-penetrating radar technology. (Mickey Djruic/CBC)

Trudeau spoke with Delorme earlier this week about the unmarked graves, offering the community an apology for the federal government’s policies that caused so much harm for so many Indigenous people.

“To the members of the Cowessess Community and Treaty 4 communities, we are sorry,” said Trudeau.  

He explained that the federal government is offering the community support and partnership, not just for those who are grieving the discovery of these graves “but also on the work that we must do to help them heal, to create opportunities to move forward, including on the issue of child and family services.”

A survivor who spoke at the event, said he felt “very lucky to be alive” as many who attended the school did not survive. Many in attendance said the discovery of the graves shows the rest of the world, and those outside of Indigenous communities, a truth they’ve known for decades.

However, while the event was a sombre one, many of those in attendance spoke about the pride and resilience of Indigenous communities, as time and time again, they’ve defied those who are trying to assimilate them and rob them of their culture and language.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others 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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