unmarked graves saskatchewan

Cowessess First Nation, Sask.: Using ground-penetrating radar, evidence of 751 unmarked graves have been located to date at the site of the former Marieval Residential School on what is now Cowessess First Nation land. The flags show the location of the graves. Photo provided by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations on June 24, 2021.
"We will find more bodies," said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron. "And we will not stop until we find all of our children."

Eighteen years ago, Lorraine Fummerton returned to the site of Marieval Indian Residential School, which she attended as a girl.

She was with her daughter, at a powwow in the community she left decades ago. Mother and daughter decided to visit the grave of Fummerton's late sister at the cemetery near the school. They wandered into a nearby field, which left Fummerton at a loss. She seemed to be searching for something that survived only in memory.

"She kept saying, 'Where are the gravestones?' " recalls her daughter, Kelly Richard. "It was just very heartbreaking for her."

Over the past three weeks, a search near the cemetery site on Cowessess First Nation has found what may have haunted Fummerton that day. Ground-penetrating radar detected evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves, part of what a Saskatchewan Indigenous leader calls the legacy of a genocide against his people.

Searchers have left 751 flags to mark the spots where tombstones should be. Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme said each flag records a "hit" from the radar. The work is only part of Phase 1 of efforts to locate and honour those in unmarked graves near the school. The process is subject to a 10- to 15-per-cent margin of error, but Delorme believes there are at least 600 bodies, and probably many more. For now, as research continues, the best estimate remains 751.

Cadmus Delorme Cowessess First Nation Chief
© Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations/Handout via REUTERS. Photo by FSIN /via REUTERS
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme anoounces the discovery of the unmarked graves of hundreds of people, in a still image from a videoconference in Grayson, Saskatchewan, Canada June 24, 2021.
Delorme couldn't confirm that all the bodies are of children, since there are oral histories that there are also adults at the site. In any case, he said it will take years to identify the remains.

"We want to honour our loved ones that lay there today," he told reporters. "We want to make sure that we keep that place and preserve it, so many can come here and heal. It's going to hurt in the coming months."

The Fummerton family gathered in their current home of Calgary to watch a press conference about the discovery, which drew media from as far away as Germany and Spain. Richard was stunned. Her mother now has brain cancer, and didn't talk much about residential schooling even when she was well. But Fummerton's other daughter, Tracy Sych, recalls seeing her mother "visibly shake" as she witnessed the horrific news.

"We knew something was coming, but did not expect this many potential lost people," Sych told the Leader-Post.

Delorme explained to reporters that the graves may have been previously marked, with the headstones removed in the 1960s. Though it's unclear whether any law was breached at the time, Delorme noted that's now a crime.

"We are treating this like a crime scene," he said.

The discovery at Cowessess could be more than triple the 215 unmarked graves located at a former residential school site in Kamloops late last month. That discovery shocked the country and triggered a wider search for the undocumented remains of students at other residential schools.

Saskatchewan had roughly 20 residential schools, and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) has prioritized several that could have undocumented burials. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has direct information about 4,100 children across Canada who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school, but commission chair Murray Sinclair has said there are undoubtedly far more who have not been found, potential victims of tuberculosis, malnutrition or neglect.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said the discovery at Cowessess shows "the results of the genocide that Canada committed." He likened residential schools, where Indigenous culture was suppressed in children often held against the wishes of their families, to concentration camps. He called the system a "crime against humanity," perpetrated on children whose only crime was being born Indigenous.

"We will find more bodies," Cameron said. "And we will not stop until we find all of our children."

The Marieval Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 on what is now Cowessess land, about 165 kilometres east of Regina. It was run by the Roman Catholic Church. The government took over the school in 1968, and Cowessess itself assumed responsibility in the 1980s. It closed in 1997 and was demolished two years later, but the cemetery remains.

Delorme called on Pope Francis to apologize for the church's role in the tragedy, something the pontiff has resisted. But in a letter to Cowessess, Archbishop Donald Bolen of the Archdiocese of Regina acknowledged the "brutal legacy of the Indian Residential School system" and the deep wounds left for those who endured abuse at Marieval. He repeated a previous apology for the "failure and sins of church leaders."

In an interview, Bolen recounted conversations with Cowessess members, who told him an oblate priest used a bulldozer to destroy tombstones in the 1960s. He called it "unthinkable."

He pledged to do whatever he can to "turn that apology into meaningful concrete acts," including by helping access information to identify the dead.

Florence Sparvier, an elder at Cowessess who spoke to reporters along with leadership on Thursday, attended the Marieval school after her mother and grandmother. She said life there was harsh, as nuns at the school were "condemning about our people."

"They told us our people, our parents and grandparents, didn't have a way to be spiritual — because we were all heathens," she said.

"They were putting us down as a people, so we learned to not like who we were."

Politicians and leaders in Saskatchewan and around the country expressed their horror at the discovery. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a "shameful reminder" of racism and injustice. Premier Scott Moe called it "heartbreaking." NDP Ryan Meili expressed sadness and anger, while calling for supports for those still grappling with trauma.

The news was met with grief and resilience in the wider Cowessess community, as trauma rippled down to younger generations whose relatives lived there. Susannah Redmond, who lives on Cowessess and has relatives who attended Marieval, called it a "terrible discovery" in a text conversation with the Leader-Post.

"It brings a grief and terrible memories that the previous generations have known and lived with for years," she wrote. "At the same time, I know our community will come through this just as strong as before."

Metis man Isaac Racette, who said his grandmother attended Marieval, said he's felt empty all day as he processes the scale of the tragedy. In his view, it will stay with descendants of survivors for generations to come.

"I don't think anybody knows how to comprehend news like that," he said. "It makes you want to be angry. It makes you want to cry."

Richard, the daughter who accompanied her mother to that lonely field, feels like the schools robbed her of something precious.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "We are the lost generation. We are the generation that grew up not knowing our culture, not being taught, not being given the proper teachings, the proper songs, the lessons. Mom didn't speak about being Indigenous. It was forbidden.

"Today was hard... I can't even describe how I feel."

FSIN officials say they expect more tragic discoveries as those efforts continue. Cameron said Thursday that the world must understand what First Nations endured through the residential school system.

"This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations people," he said. "We are proud people. The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous."

In a social media post, the FSIN provided phone numbers for those grappling with emotional distress as a result of the discoveries. Those in need of support can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, toll free, or the 24-hour Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.