Saskatchewan residential school survivor reflects on tragic legacy: ‘My little heart was just crying’

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WATCH: Just days after the bodies of 215 children were found buried near a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Premier Scott Moe joined the FSIN in issuing a call to investigate whether similar burials happened at schools in Saskatchewan – Jun 1, 2021

Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised. 

Residential school survivor Sharon Agecoutay still remembers hearing some of her classmates cry themselves to sleep.

The Regina Public Schools elder attended a residential school at Lebret, Sask., from 1949 to 1962. She could see the homes of her family from a window, but could only visit with relatives on one day for three-and-a-half hours per month.

Read more: ‘Every site checked’: FSIN demand governments search residential school sites for remains

Government policy required Agecoutay’s mother to enroll her and her siblings in the school.

“I didn’t have a choice to go to Lebret public school with my cousins. I had to go to the residential school,” she said in an interview.

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Sometimes Agecoutay could catch a glimpse of her sister at the school, but they couldn’t hug. As they got older, they could have short conversations.

While she was a strong student who enjoyed learning, Agecoutay said she watched other children struggle. She recalled children as young as four years old crying and calling for their parents at night.

When that happened, Agecoutay said she and her classmates weren’t allowed to offer any comfort.

“We just had to lay in bed and fall asleep listening to them crying,” she said. “Now I know that my little heart was just crying with them.”

Read more: Grief, sorrow after discovery of 215 bodies, unmarked graves at former B.C. residential school site

Though Agecoutay never heard talk of unmarked graves, the school at Lebret is one of the sites that needs to be examined for unmarked graves, according to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN).

The FSIN and Saskatchewan government issued a joint call for immediate action from the federal government Monday. They stated there must be research on undocumented deaths and burials at roughly 20 residential school sites in the province.

Part of the work must include radar ground search technology, which was used in the discovery of 215 remains on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, they said.

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Since the discovery, FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said families and residential school survivors in Saskatchewan have been raising concerns about numerous sites that could have unmarked graves.

Read more: Trudeau vows ‘concrete action’ after discovery of 215 bodies at former residential school site

“Based on the stories and the input we’ve been getting . . . the number is probably staggering,” Cameron said.

“You hear heartbreaking stories, gut-wrenching stories and those people have witnessed murders being taken place.”

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the issue of residential schools deserves a national approach, but Saskatchewan is ready to collaborate with Indigenous leaders and people.

“And most certainly we are going to do it whether the federal government moves forward or not,” Moe said.

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In a statement, the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said it is “profoundly saddened” and remains “committed to supporting survivors, their families and communities to locate and memorialize through ceremonies the children who died or went missing while attending residential schools.”

In its 2019 budget, the federal government committed $33.8 million over three years to efforts including a student death register, a burial register and work to find and commemorate the remains of children who died at residential schools.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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