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The Cowessess First Nation found hundreds of unmarked graves on this site near the former Marieval Indian Residential School. FSIN Handout photo

Hundreds of graves discovered at Saskatchewan residential school site

  • June 24, 2021

The Cowessess First Nation will put a name to each of the hundreds of bodies found at the unmarked graves on the former Marieval Indian Residential School, vows Chief Cadmus Delorme.

“We will put a headstone and a grave to each of them,” Delorme said at a June 24 news conference to announce the discovery of hundreds of bodies on the southeast Saskatchewan First Nations’ lands.

The chief announced the discovery of up to 751 unmarked graves at the site of the Catholic residential school on its territory, the news coming almost a month after the discovery of 215 children’s bodies buried at another residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

The graves at Marieval — which Delorme said were not part of a mass grave — were discovered by ground-penetrating radar which the First Nation, with the help of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, had been using since earlier this month on the grounds of the cemetery. He also said it’s not yet certain if all the bodies are children from the school. Delorme also stressed there could be a 10-per-cent margin of error, so he was working on the assumption there are “over 600” bodies buried at the site.

“We always knew there were graves here” through oral history passed along from elders in the community, he said.

The Marieval school, located about 140 kilometres east of Regina, opened in 1898 and was run by Catholic missionaries and funded by the federal government until 1968, when the government took over full control before handing over responsibility for the school to the Cowessess First Nation in 1987. It closed in 1997 and was demolished in 1999.

The graves had been marked in the past but in 1960 the headstones were taken down by Catholic Church representatives, said Delorme.

“We didn’t remove the headstones, that’s a crime in this country,” he said.

By putting a name to each and every person buried there, “we want to make sure we keep that place so we can heal,” said Delorme.

“A lot of the pain we see in our people comes from there,” elder Florence Sparvier, a knowledge keeper in the Cowessess community, said at the press conference.

Sparvier attended the Marieval school and recalled how the children were not treated very well by the Oblates and the nuns who ran and taught at the school. 

“They made us believe we didn’t have souls,” the 80-year-old Sparvier said.

Regina Archbishop Don Bolen called the news of the unmarked graves “overwhelming.”

“I can only imagine the pain and was of emotion that you and your people are experiencing right now,” he said in a statement addressed to Delorme and the Cowessess First Nation following the news conference. “The incredible burden of the past is still with us and the truth of that past needs to come out, however painful, as only truth can lead to reconciliation.”

Bolen noted that Delorme had first approached him about the cemetery three years ago, when they began discussions about fulfilling the one of the “calls to action” in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission — to assist First Nations with residential school gravesites. In 2019, the Archdiocese of Regina paid $70,000 to help Cowessess identify unmarked graves and add fences and trees to the Cowessess Cemetery. 

“I know that apologies seem a very small step as the weight of past suffering comes into greater light,” said Bolen, “but I extend that apology again and pledge to do what we can to turn that apology into meaningful concrete acts — including assessing information that will help to provide name and information about those buried in unmarked graves — and to stand by you in whatever way you request.”

The discoveries of the Kamloops and Marieval graves — “and there are more to come,” said Chief Bobby Cameron, chief of the FSIN (Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations) — have pushed forward the calls to enact true reconciliation.

“These stories will come out,” said Cameron. “Canada will have to work with us on reconciliation. Our people deserve more than apologies and sympathies. We deserve justice.

“There must be immediate change.” 

He called on governments “to work with us — and they are.” That includes releasing all records pertaining to residential schools.

Bolen has visited the Cowessess grave site, said Delorme, “and has committed to what we want.”

“We have full faith the Roman Catholic Church will release our records,” he said, while also acknowledging the federal government “can move quicker but they are making progress.”

Oblate Fr. Ken Thorson, provincial of OMI Lacombe, in a statement said the Oblates “will disclose and not block access to the historical documents maintained by us and in our possession, as is possible within the law, to establish the truth of what happened in residential schools.” He added the Oblates “will seek guidance from and work with First Nations and federal and provincial governments on these matters,” as well as with the Catholic bishops and other leaders “to support full truth in these matters.”

Delorme also called for a papal apology, one of the Calls to Action from the TRC report, a call that has reverberated across the nation since the Kamloops discovery.

“The Pope needs to apologize for what has happened…. an apology is one stage of many in the healing journey.” 

Last modified on June 25, 2021

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