WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Seven-hundred and fifty-one lights spanned the entirety of the burial site on the Cowessess First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan last night where a large group of people, many wearing orange, gathered in honour of the remains housed in 751 unmarked graves in the community.
An elder in the community who spoke at Saturday’s vigil said the discovery of the remains is equivalent to a scab that had been “slowly healing” being ripped off.
Speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, the elder explained to those in attendance that the journey to healing for those affected by the discovery is ongoing and long from over.
Band leaders say the unmarked graves contain the remains of children, teens, band members and others from outside the community, with many of the graves believed to be Indigenous children who were taken from their family for assimilation at the Marieval Indian Residential School.
The lights were placed on the grave sites in an effort co-ordinated by the Cowessess Youth Council and staff from the Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, with a single light placed at each of the hundreds of flags where human remains have been located using radar technology.
The discovery has spurred anger and sadness for many across Canada and around the globe as it came just weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of 215 children were at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The sound of drums and voices carrying traditional song could be heard at the gathering, which took place under a blue prairie sky. Rooted in ceremony and tradition, the event started with a smudge and prayer, with those in attendance marking a moment of silence at 7:51 p.m. CST. Following the moment of silence, members of the community and band leadership spoke to those in attendance.
During a prayer that was said in both Cree and English at the vigil, the Kookum who offered the prayer said many in the community have been praying and asking for these graves to be discovered for years, and now those prayers have been answered.
Located roughly two hours east of Regina, the Cowessess First Nation spans over 21,000 hectares and is made up of 3,266 band members, with 597 who live on reserve. The effort to identify the gravesites was announced earlier this summer and is something the community is doing with assistance from Saskatchewan Polytechnic and the Federal Government.
Chief Cadmus Delorme, who has been the community’s voice to the globe following the discovery, said before the investigation that while there are some markings on the site, it’s about only one-third of the suspected graves.
There are more unmarked graves at other forced assimilation sites in the province.
Following the discovery of the remains in Kamloops, both the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called on the federal government to search all of Saskatchewan’s sites, with FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron calling what happened in Canada’s residential schools “a crime against humanity.”
“There are thousands of families across our Treaty territories that have been waiting for their children to come home. Saskatchewan had the highest number of residential schools and highest number of survivors,” said Cameron, noting they want all Saskatchewan sites — schools, sanatoriums and other such locations — searched and victims identified.
The efforts to find the graves on the Cowessess First Nation saw roughly 44,000 square metres searched by technical teams, resulting in a total of 751 total recorded hits, but with the possibility of more than one set of remains at each hit, the total number is expected to be verified in the coming weeks.
It’s heartwarming to me, because they were unknown this whole time, but now they’re being acknowledged.– Coun. Jonathan Z. Lerat
Jonathan Z. Lerat, a councillor with the Cowessess First Nation, said the evening vigil will be important for community members as they work to heal, but also for those in the surrounding communities, as it’s not only Cowessess First Nation members who are buried in the site.
He thinks the discovery on Cowessess will help the rest of the world understand the scope of suffering inflicted through the schools, saying it is important they are recognized.
“It’s heartwarming to me, because they were unknown this whole time, but now they’re being acknowledged,” he said.
Support offered from across Sask.
Members of the Indigenous community in Regina also made the journey to Cowessess to show support. Star Andreas, an activist in Regina who is a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation and calls herself a Treaty 4 warrior woman, said before her departure, it’s only a matter of time until more mass graves are discovered.
“They are going to find more babies. They haven’t even searched the other ones yet, but they will.”
Andreas, through her activism, was instrumental in the recent removal of a statue of Father Hugonard, who founded the Lebrat Indian Industrial Residential School, setting up a camp at the statue site while calling for the province’s sites to be searched.
She says today, those same colonial systems that oppressed and assimilated her family, are still alive in other forms.
“Residential schools, now foster care,” she said. “The same thing is going on and it’s going to stop.”
Many Indigenous leaders, including Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme, have now called on Pope Francis to make an apology for the residential schools, the majority of which were run by the Catholic Church. On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’s now approached the Pope “to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil.”
The prime minister also spoke with Chief Delorme earlier this week, offering the community an apology for the government policies that caused so much harm, for so many.
“To the members of the Cowessess Community and Treaty 4 communities, we are sorry,” said Trudeau.
He said the federal government is offering the community support and partnership, not just for those who are grieving the discovery of these graves “but also on the work that we must do to help them heal, to create opportunities to move 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 who attended the school did not survive. Many in attendance said the discovery of the graves shows the rest of the world, and those outside of Indigenous communities, a truth they’ve known for decades.
However, while the event was a sombre one, many of those in attendance spoke about the pride and resilience of Indigenous communities, as time and time again, they’ve defied those who are trying to assimilate them and rob them of their culture and language.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for 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.