1:15 PM PDT, June 30, 2021
A possible 751 bodies were discovered at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the Cowessess First Nation announced last week. “We are treating this like a crime scene,” Chief Cadmus Delorme said in a statement. “We must put down our ignorance and accidental racism of not addressing the truth that this country has with Indigenous people.”
This comes just a month after a grisly discovery of 251 bodies of Indigenous children found in a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School that has spurred searches across former residential schools around the country and forced Canada’s leaders to face its shameful past.
“This was an incredibly harmful government policy that was Canada’s reality for many, many decades,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement following the latest discovery. “Canadians today are horrified and ashamed at how our country behaved about a policy that ripped kids from their homes, from their communities, from their culture and their language and forced assimilation upon them.”
Trudeau continued, “Specifically, to the members of the Cowessess community and Treaty Four communities, we are sorry. It was something that we cannot undo in the past, but we can pledge ourselves every day to fix in the present and into the future,” he said.
The Cowessess First Nation community had used the same ground-penetrating radar to assess a known gravesite by the former Marieval Indian Residential School. While they believe the found 751 bodies, Delorme clarified that “we cannot affirm that they are all children” as the school had both children and adults, according to oral stories.
The former Marieval Indian Residential School, located on the Cowessess 73 reserve east of the province’s capital city, Regina, was in operation for nearly 100 years, between 1898 to 1997. It was initially operated by Catholic nuns before it was taken over by the Government of Canada in 1969.
At its height, the Marieval Indian Residential School had nearly 250 students, the majority of whom would’ve been boarding school students. Indigenous children had their hair cut upon enrollment and were sometimes referred to by number. They were only allowed to visit their families on special occasions.
Survivors have said the residential school experience was riddled with physical and sexual abuse. The Government of Canada has admitted in recent years that the residential school system was meant to be a form of cultural genocide.
The grave site was known, with plenty of survivors having memories of the graves.
“We’ve heard that often, children would be the ones digging the graves for other children, and so they might know exactly where the graves are,” Terence Clark, an assistant professor of archeology at the University of Saskatchewan, told CBC News.
Many of the graves at the Saskatchewan site may have had markers, but Chief Delorme said its likely many of them were removed at some point.
Now, he and Chief Delorme are calling for the Catholic Church to take responsibility for its role in the residential school system.
“I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness 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,” Trudeau said, adding that he had also personally asked the Pope to consider an apology in 2017, and urged the Church to release records related to the schools.
Indigenous leaders representing delegations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit are scheduled to travel to the Vatican in December to meet with Pope Francis, CBC News reported, adding that the delegation will consist of elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and young people.
Bishops said that the visit is meant to allow the Pope to “hear directly from Indigenous Peoples, express his heartfelt closeness, address the impact of colonization and the implication of the Church in residential schools, so as to respond to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.”
The trip had been scheduled to happen previous to the discoveries, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the visit.
While the delegation did not initially anticipate a papal apology, calls for one are intensifying as more and more discoveries of previously unaccounted-for bodies buried near residential schools are coming to light.
“The pope needs to apologize,” Delorme said, when announcing the discovery of the bodies. “An apology is one stage in the healing journey.”
Locally, many are calling for Canada Day celebrations which normally happen on July 1 to either be canceled or postponed. The day mark the initial joining of three British colonies in 1867 that eventually grew to encompass more territories to become the country of Canada.
“Celebrating Canada Day is being seen as inconsiderate to all the children’s lives that were lost and we encourage everyone to consider the price these children had to pay at the hands of the Canadian government,” Chief Bobby Cameron of the Saskatchewan Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) said in a statement.
The small city of Melville, north of Cowessess First Nation territory, has announced it will postpone its Canada Day celebrations.
“Out of respect for our neighbours on the Cowessess First Nation, all residential school survivors and their families, city council decided to postpone the Canada Day celebrations while our communities are mourning,” the city said in a statement. “The recent discovery of unmarked graves across the country and now at Cowessess is a sad part of our nation’s history. It’s a time to reflect and mourn with our Indigenous community.”
Additionally, Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia where the initial 215 bodies were found, has also canceled their Canada Day celebrations “as First Nations mourn and in light of the challenging moment,”per a statement earlier this month.
The City of Dawson in Yukon has now vowed to reallocate funds originally assigned to Canada Day celebrations into investigating the territory’s residential schools
Idle No More, a grassroots protest movement among Indigenous people based on Canada, has issued a similar statement, insisting that they will not celebrate Canada Day. “We will not celebrate stolen Indigenous land and stolen Indigenous lives,” they said. “Instead, we will gather to honour all of the lives lost to the Canadian state – Indigenous lives, Black lives, Migrant lives, Women and Trans and 2Spirit lives. – all of the relatives we have lost.”
Trudeau, while not calling for Canada Day celebrations to be canceled altogether, echoed a similar sentiment. “This coming Canada Day, I think we all need to pledge ourselves to doing what we can to continue that effort to make Canada better, all the while respecting and listening to those for whom it’s not yet a day of celebration.”
“I want to be able to wish everyone a happy Canada Day, but I cannot,” Ontario lawmaker Sol Mamakwa, who is a member of the Kingfisher First Nation representing the electoral district of Kiiwetinoong, said in a statement on Twitter.
The hashtag #CancelCanadaDay has been trending on Twitter.