Canada is once again encountering its bleakest past. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), representing 74 indigenous communities in the province of Saskatchewan (center of the country), has announced the discovery of 751 unidentified graves on the grounds of a former boarding school for indigenous children of the town of Marieval. The site is located in the Cowessess reserve (inhabited by about 4,200 members of the Saulteaux and Cree groups), about 100 miles east of Regina, the provincial capital. In a statement, the FSIN classified this discovery as “shocking and shocking.”
The discovery comes just under a month after the remains of 215 children were located on land belonging to the former boarding school for indigenous minors in Kamloops, in the province of British Columbia. The event caused a commotion in Canada and rekindled the debate around the treatment given to indigenous communities, with centers created in theory to integrate their minors, but in which there was forced assimilation with physical punishment.
Cadmus Delorme, head of the Cowessess reserve, told a news conference Thursday that there are 751 unmarked graves. “It is not a mass grave; They are tombs without a name, ”he said. He also claimed that the Catholic Church removed the tombstones in the 1960s. “Removing tombstones is a crime in this country. And we are treating all of this as a crime scene, “he added. Delorme noted that they do not yet know if these graves belong to children, but that stories have long circulated in their community about minors and adults buried there.
As in the case of Kamloops, the Marieval find was made possible by ground-penetrating radar. The investigations began on June 1. FSIN chief Bobby Cameron said the latest find – the largest of its kind in Canada – is just the beginning of searches of former Saskatchewan boarding schools. “Thousands of families in our territories have been waiting for their children to return home,” he said.
Kamloops and Marieval were part of the network of 139 boarding schools for indigenous minors that operated between 1883 and 1996. Some 150,000 children were forced to live in these centers funded by the federal government and run by religious communities (more than 70% by Catholic groups) . Neglect, physical punishment, sexual violence and racism were common in them. In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created to review that past delivered a report in which it classified what happened in these institutions as a “cultural genocide”. Many parents did not hear from their children again. The commission established in 2019 that at least 4,134 minors died in these centers. Other experts estimate that the number is well above 6,000.
Perry Bellegarde, head of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, said on Twitter that the discovery at Marieval is “absolutely tragic, but not surprising.” Bellegarde added: “I urge all Canadians to support First Nations at this extremely difficult and emotional time.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement saying: “I know that this discovery only exacerbates the pain that families, survivors and all indigenous communities already feel, and reaffirms a truth they have known for a long time. Canada is responsible for the pain and trauma they feel ”. Trudeau added that “the Marieval and Kamloops discoveries are part of a larger tragedy. They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination and injustice that indigenous peoples have faced and still face in this country ”.
A Catholic congregation managed the Marieval boarding school from 1899 to 1969. Subsequently, the federal government took care of its administration until 1987, when the leaders of the reservation did it (in 1970, the boarding school cemetery had already passed into the hands of this community) . The center closed its doors in 1997 and the building was demolished two years later. In 2020, Robert Kakaway published Thou Shalt Not Be an Indian: A Residential School Survivor’s Story, a book in which he recounted his experiences as a student at this center during the sixties. Kakaway describes in his pages the fear of punishment, daily abuse and cultural disconnection he suffered with his community.
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