Survivors, the community honors 751 anonymous graves in Sask. boarding school site with security guard

DISCLAIMER: This story contains distressing details.

Last night, seven hundred and fifty-one lights covered the entire burial site of Cowessess First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan, where a large group of people, many of whom wore orange, gathered in honor of the remains housed in 751 anonymous graves in the community. .

A community elder who spoke at the vigil on Saturday said finding the remains was tantamount to pulling off a scab that “slowly healed.”

Speaking in a down-to-earth tone, the Elder explained to those in attendance that the healing journey for those affected by the discovery is underway and far from over.

Band leaders say the unmarked graves contain the remains of children, adolescents, band members and others from outside the community, and many of the graves are believed to be Indigenous children who have been removed from their family to be assimilated to the Marieval Indian boarding school.

The lights were placed at the burial grounds as part of a coordinated effort by the Cowessess Youth Council and staff at the Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, with a single light placed on each of the hundreds of flags where human remains were located using radar technology. .

The discovery has sparked the anger and sorrow of many in Canada and around the world, as it came just weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said ground-penetrating radar indicated that the remains 215 children were at the site of the former Kamloops Indian residence. School in British Columbia.

Answered prayers

The sound of drums and voices carrying traditional chants could be heard at the rally, which took place under a blue sky of the meadows. Rooted in ceremony and tradition, the event began with a cleansing and prayer, with those in attendance marking a minute of silence at 7:51 p.m. CST. After the moment of silence, community members and band leaders addressed those present.

During a prayer that was said in Cree and English during the vigil, the Kookum who offered the prayer said that many members of the community have been praying and asking for these graves to be uncovered for years, and now these prayers have been answered.

Community members walk past hundreds of anonymous graves, now marked with solar lights, located on Cowessess First Nation, where the Marieval Indian Residential School once stood. Seven hundred and fifty-one of the lamps were placed on the tomb, showing the massive extent of the number of remains believed to be there. (Olivier Rouquairol Jodouin / CBC)

Located about two hours east of Regina, the Cowessess First Nation covers more than 21,000 hectares and is made up of 3,266 band members, of which 597 live on the reserve. The effort to identify the burial sites was announced earlier this summer and is something the community is doing with the help of Saskatchewan Polytechnic and the federal government.

Chef Cadmus Delorme, who was the voice of the community to the world after the discovery, said before the investigation that although there are marks on the site, it is only a third of suspicious graves.

There are more anonymous graves at other sites of forced assimilation in the province.

Following the discovery of the remains in Kamloops, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called on the federal government to search all sites in Saskatchewan, FSIN chief Bobby Cameron , calling what happened at residential schools in Canada a “crime against humanity”. . ”

“There are thousands of families across our Treaty Territories waiting for their children to come home. Saskatchewan had the most residential schools and the most survivors, ”Cameron said, noting that they wanted all sites in Saskatchewan – schools, sanatoriums and the like – searched and victims identified.

Efforts to find the graves at Cowessess First Nation saw an estimated 44,000 square meters excavated by technical teams, resulting in a total of 751 hits recorded in total, but with the possibility of more than one set of remains. with each hit, the total number is expected to be verified in the coming weeks.

It warms my heart, because they were strangers all this time, but now they are recognized.- Coun. Jonathan Z. Lerat

Jonathan Z. Lerat, a Cowessess First Nation councilor, said the evening vigil will be important for community members as they strive to heal, but also for those in surrounding communities as it is not. not just the members of the Cowessess First Nation who are buried in the site.

He believes the discovery on Cowessess will help the rest of the world understand the extent of the suffering inflicted by schools, saying it is important that they be recognized.

“It warms my heart because they were strangers all this time, but now they are recognized,” he said.

Support available across Saskatchewan.

Members of the Regina Aboriginal community also traveled to Cowessess to show their support. Star Andreas, an activist from Regina who is a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation and calls herself a Treaty 4 warrior, said before she left that it was only a matter of time before more mass graves were discovered .

“They will find other babies. They haven’t even searched the others yet, but they will.

Andreas, through his activism, was instrumental in the recent removal of a statue of Father Hugonard, who founded the Lebrat Industrial Indian Residential School, by setting up a camp at the site of the statue while calling for excavation of the sites. of the province.

She says that today those same colonial systems that oppressed and assimilated her family are still alive in other forms.

“Residential schools, now foster families,” she said. “The same is happening and it will stop.”

Many Indigenous leaders, including Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme, have now called on Pope Francis to apologize for the residential schools, the majority of which were run by the Catholic Church. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday he had now approached the Pope “to make him understand how important it is not that he apologize, but that he apologize to Indigenous Canadians on the Canadian soil ”.

Hundreds of lights can be seen on Cowessess First Nation where more than 751 anonymous graves have been discovered. A large group of people, many wearing orange, gathered in the First Nation on Saturday evening to honor the deceased. (Olivier Rouquairol Jodouin / CBC)

The Prime Minister also spoke with Chief Delorme earlier this week, offering the community an apology for government policies that have caused so much harm to so many people.

“To the members of the Cowessess community and the Treaty 4 communities, we are sorry,” Trudeau said.

He said the federal government is providing the community with support and partnership, not only for those mourning the discovery of these graves “but also on the work we need to do to help them heal, to create opportunities for them to heal. moving forward, including on the issue of child and family services.

A survivor who spoke at the event said he felt “very lucky to be alive” as many of those who attended school did not survive. Many participants said the discovery of the graves showed the rest of the world and those outside of indigenous communities a truth they had known for decades.

However, although the event was bleak, many in attendance spoke of the pride and resilience of Indigenous communities as they repeatedly challenged those who attempt to assimilate them and steal their culture and their tongue. .

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience and to those triggered by these reports.

A national residential school crisis line was established to provide support to residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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