WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the US. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419. If you're in Treaty 4 territory, call 306-522-7494.
Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan says it discovered 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in a press conference Thursday. The discovery follows last month's report of 215 graves at another school.
They are currently treating the area as a "crime scene,” Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme said.
The graves were found using ground-penetrating radar which resulted in 751 “hits,″ indicating that at least 600 bodies were buried in the area, Delorme said. The radar operators said their results could have a margin of error of 10 percent.
“We want to make sure when we tell our story that we’re not trying to make numbers sound bigger than they are,” Delorme said. “I like to say over 600, just to be assured.”
He said the area continues to be searched while the radar hits are reviewed by a technical team. All numbers will be verified in the coming weeks.
He said each grave – some only one meter by one meter apart – was now marked with a small flag. It is unknown if all of the dead are children, Delorme said.
“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations,” Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations in Saskatchewan said. He said he expects more graves will be found on residential school grounds across Canada.
“We will not stop until we find all the bodies,” Cameron said.
The site at Marieval is an open space of unmarked graves, Delorme said. The Catholic church removed headstones from the site in 1960 and tombstones were never put back, he said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he is "terribly saddened" to learn of the unmarked graves. He added that the findings "only deepen the pain" that many feel.
“The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy," Trudeau 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. And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the entire province mourns the discovery of the unmarked graves.
Don Bolen, Archbishop of Regina, Saskatchewan, posted a letter to the Cowessess First Nation on the archdiocese’s website.
“The news is overwhelming and I can only imagine the pain and waves of emotion that you and your people are experiencing right now,” Bolen wrote.
Bolen said two years ago he apologized to the Cowessess people for the “failures and sins of Church leaders in the past.”
“I know that apologies seem a very small step as the weight of past suffering comes into greater light, but I extend that apology again, and pledge to do what we can to turn that apology into meaningful concrete acts - including assisting in accessing information that will help to provide names and information about those buried in unmarked graves,” he said.
Delorme says the search at Marieval began in June. It was prompted by the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of children — some as young as 3 years old — at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia.
Following that discovery, the Canadian federal government announced a $27 million fund to help pay for searches at schools across the country. Pope Francis also expressed his pain over the discovery and pressed religious and political authorities to shed light on “this sad affair,” but he did not offer the apology sought by First Nations and by Canadian prime minister.
"We are not asking for pity but we are asking for understanding,” Delorme said. “We need time to heal and this country [Canada] must stand by us."
Next steps for the Indigenous nation will include putting names to the graves found, Delorme said. It has reached out to the Catholic church to identify these individuals.
The First Nation is located north of North Dakota and about 85 miles east of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, a Canadian province. The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997.
Florence Sparvier, 80, said she attended the residential school.
"The nuns were very mean to us," she said. "We had to learn how to be Roman Catholic. We couldn't say our own little blessings."
Nuns at the school were "condemning about our people" and the pain inflicted continues generations later, Sparvier said.
"We learned how to not like who we were," she said. "That has gone on and it's still going on.''
“The Pope needs to apologize for what happened,” Cameron said. “An apology is one stage in the way of a healing journey.”
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their Native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their Native languages.
According to the release from the FSIN, the community and former school site are closed because of COVID-19 precautions.
The release also stated: “We ask that all members of the media please be respectful of survivors, descendants and the communities affected by this discovery and respect privacy at this time."
Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania is believed to have been a template for Canada’s residential schools after it passed the Indian Act in 1876.
Nicholas Flood Davin, then a member of Parliament, was tasked with finding a means to educate the country’s Indigenous peoples. Davin visited Carlisle in 1879 and was impressed with U.S. Army Lt. Richard Pratt, the school’s founder. Pratt’s motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” helped shape the regimented, military style that defined most boarding schools.
Researchers say that most of the more than 350 U.S. Indian boarding schools — more than double the 130 or so schools in Canada — have cemeteries associated with them. Unlike Canada, the U.S. has never had an accurate accounting of the number of Indian boarding schools, the number of children who attended or those who died at the schools.
U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a new initiative this week that will result in a detailed report compiled by the Interior and will include historical records of boarding school locations, burial sites and enrollment logs of children’s names and tribal affiliations
The unprecedented move will ultimately aim to create healing by understanding the true scope of boarding schools in the U.S., said Haaland, Laguna Pueblo.
Many reacted to Thursday’s news on social media.
“The spirits of our murdered children are stepping out of the shadows of their lost graves and screaming out for justice,” Brandi Morin, Cree and Iroquois, said in a video posted to Twitter.
“This is a wake up call,” Morin said. “It’s time to face this.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.