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Hundreds of graves found at former residential school for Indigenous children in Canada

A crew performs a ground-penetrating radar search this month of a field where the Cowessess First Nation said it found indications of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. (Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations/Reuters)

TORONTO — Leaders of a First Nation in Canada said Thursday they have found indications of at least 751 unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan, the second such announcement here in less than a month as the country reckons with the devastating legacy of one of the darkest chapters of its history.

Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said the discovery was made near the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in the southeastern corner of the prairie province, confirming the stories of Indigenous elders and residential school survivors who had long told stories of a burial site there.

“All we ask of all of you listening is that you stand by us as we heal and get stronger,” Delorme said during a virtual news conference. “We all must put down our ignorance and accidental racism of not addressing the truth that this country has with Indigenous people. We are not asking for pity, but we are asking for understanding.”

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The announcement came less than a month after the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation said a ground-penetrating radar specialist had uncovered evidence of unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

That news rekindled pleas for accountability from the Catholic entities that ran most of the schools, fueled calls for the removal of monuments to the Canadian leaders who set up the residential school system and sparked new criticism of the progress that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made toward reconciliation — a goal he pledged would be at the center of his government’s agenda.

Trudeau said Thursday that he was “terribly saddened” to learn of the new discovery.

“The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy,” he said in a statement. “They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced — and continue to face — in this country.”

China called for an investigation on June 22 into the discovery of the remains of indigenous children in Canada at the site of a former boarding school. (Video: Reuters)

Don Bolen, the Catholic archbishop of Regina, apologized to Delorme on Thursday and offered his assistance “in accessing information that will help to provide names and information about those buried in unmarked graves.”

“The grave site work brings us face to face with the brutal legacy of the Indian Residential School system, a product of a colonialist history which has left so much suffering and intergenerational trauma,” Bolen wrote in a letter posted on an archdiocesan website.

Nearly 150,000 Indigenous children were sent to the government-funded and church-run boarding schools, which were set up in the 19th century to assimilate them and operated until the late 1990s. Many children were forcibly separated from their families to be placed in the schools.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a 2015 report that many of the students were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the schools, which barred them from practicing their traditions and speaking their languages. It said the schools carried out “cultural genocide” and effectively institutionalized child neglect.

The commission identified more than 3,000 students who died at the schools, a rate that was far higher than for non-Indigenous school-aged children. That number has since grown. Officials say the total number of children who died or went missing at the schools might never be known.

Children often died of diseases that spread rapidly in unsanitary living conditions, in accidents and in fires, the commission said. Some disappeared while trying to escape. To save money, authorities often buried the bodies on or near school sites, rather than send them back to their families.

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The Marieval Indian Residential School was founded in the 1890s by Catholic missionaries. The federal government began funding the school in 1901 and took over its administration in 1969 before turning it over to the Cowessess First Nation in 1987. It closed in the 1990s and was later demolished.

The commission’s report included testimony from Ronalee Lavallee, a student at the Marieval school in the 1960s and 1970s. She said many students spoke Cree and would spend their nights teaching the language to other students, but that they had to take turns watching for the nuns so that they wouldn’t get into trouble.

The commission also noted details from a fire inspection report that found that the fire-escape door to the girls’ dormitory was locked and the fire-escape door in the boys’ dormitory was impossible to open. It detailed the story of a female student whose hair was cut as punishment for trying to slip out of the school to meet with local boys.

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Delorme said the First Nation began its search of the site with ground-penetrating radar this month and that the technology has an error rate ranging from 10 to 15 percent. He said the gravesite was first established in 1886 by Catholic groups, that it isn’t known whether all of the unmarked graves contain the remains of children, and that some adults might also be buried there as well.

“This is not a mass gravesite,” he said. “These are unmarked graves.”

Residential school survivors and Trudeau have pushed the Vatican to make an official apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the system. Trudeau made a personal appeal to Pope Francis in 2017, but the pontiff has stopped short of an apology. The leaders of the Anglican and United Churches in Canada, which also operated schools, have apologized.

Officials here have also said that some of the Catholic entities that ran the schools have not turned over all of the records that might help them to identify children who died or went missing and to locate more graves.

After the Kamloops announcement, Indigenous leaders and Trudeau said there probably would be more discoveries as other such sites were searched. The federal government and several provincial governments have since set aside funds to aid Indigenous communities in searching these sites and working to commemorate the dead.

Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said the discovery at Marieval is evidence of a “crime against humanity.” Indigenous people, he said, deserve “more than apologies and sympathies.”

“We will find more bodies,” Cameron said, “and we will not stop until we find all of our children.”

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