Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Residential school survivors are speaking out about their personal experiences after an estimated 751 unmarked graves were found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
Leaders of the Cowessess First Nation, around 160 kilometres east of Regina, confirmed the number on Thursday, adding they currently don’t know if all the unmarked graves are children but will try to put a headstone and name to each body found.
“They made us believe we didn’t have souls,” said 80-year-old Elder Florence Sparvier, a survivor of the Marieval Indian Residential School and member of Cowessess First Nation. “They pounded it into us … and they were really mean. When I say pounding I mean pounding. Those nuns were really mean to us.”
Sparvier is one of the roughly 150,000 First Nations children who went through Canada’s church-run residential school system, which ran from the 1870s until the 1990s.
The Cowessess report comes less than a month after a First Nation in British Columbia announced ground-penetrating radar had found the remains of 215 children buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops.
The Marieval Indian Residential School, where the discovery of the unmarked graves was made this week, operated between 1899 and 1996. According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation records, the school was constructed by Roman Catholic missionaries before the federal government started funding the school in 1901.
Speaking at a press conference held by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and Cowessess First Nation on Thursday, Sparvier detailed stories of her years at the residential school.
“I was taken by my parents. At that time, if parents didn’t want to allow their children to go to boarding school, one of them had to go to jail,” she said.
She said her mother and grandmother also attended the school, where all of the children learned how to be Roman Catholic, and were “told about a new being that was supposed to be our ultimate saviour.”
“We had our own way of honouring ourselves and Mother Earth at our homes when we were little,” Sparvier explained. “But we had to leave all that … that was stripped away when we went to boarding school. They told us what to say. They were very condemning about our people … they told us our people, our parents and grandparents, were not spiritual and we were all heathens.”
The abuse and assimilation caused multi-generations of trauma for Indigenous People as “we learned not to like who we were,” she said.
On Thursday, the Archdiocese of Regina released a statement about the discovery, apologizing for the church’s role in the atrocities. It comes in contrast to the Catholic Church itself, which has so far fallen short of issuing an official apology for its role.
“I know that apologies seem a very small step as the weight of past suffering comes into greater light, but I extend that apology again, and pledge to do what we can to turn that apology into meaningful concrete acts,” Archbishop Donald Bolen said in the statement.
He added that the church will help the community access information and provide names of those buried in unmarked graves.
Barry Kennedy, a residential school survivor who also attended Marieval Indian Residential School, said he was five years old when he was taken away from his parents by the RCMP.
“I remember the fight and arguments that my parents were having to try and get them to leave us alone,” she said “My mother was also a survivor so she knew what happened at residential schools.”
Kennedy, who is a member of the Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation in southern Saskatchewan, attended the residential school for five years, and said during the day the place was like any “normal school” — the children went to classes, had recess and had lunch.
However, it wasn’t the education aspect that continues to haunt him, it’s what happened at night.
“At nighttime is when ‘he would come’ and would start taking boys. You could hear the cries and the moans and screams,” he said. “They called him ‘the keeper’ and he had a room just off of the main boys’ dormitory. He would make his passes to check on the boys and then all of a sudden, would start taking the boys.”
Kennedy said he heard the children fighting, screaming and yelling for help.
Because he was only five years old, he said he didn’t understand what rape and abuse were.
“I understood the pain, I understood the fear, because we were slapped around, we were kicked around, we were punched, our hair was pulled …”
“It was how things operated at nighttime in the school. It was a poor, poor upbringing,” he said.
Kennedy said he was shocked by the number of unmarked graves that were found at the Saskatchewan residential school, but at the same time, he was not surprised.
When he was an altar boy at the school, Kennedy said he participated in the burial of a person at the back of the church.
“I had my little white monkey suit on and carrying my little cross. I never saw the body, it was wrapped in a sheet and was put into the grave with the sheet. No casket, nothing … just in the ground,” he said.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report that found Canada’s residential school system amounted to cultural genocide, acknowledged that a cemetery was left on the Marieval site after the school building was demolished.
More than 4,315 children have died while attending residential schools in Canada. And in the wake of the horrific news from Saskatchewan, the number has now grown.
Many Indigenous communities say there are multiple sites with unmarked graves across Canada that have yet to be discovered.
“I think there are multiple sites … we heard of other gravesites across the valley,” Kennedy said. “I think there’s still a long job ahead. My heart goes out to Cowessess and all its members and the task they have taken on as a community.”
Kennedy added that he still has mixed feelings with the federal government, the Catholic Church and the RCMP, because “this has all been hidden for years.”
“The church still hasn’t stepped forward. They were the ones who had the biggest hand in this and they are the ones who are so withholding. They need to be taken to task. They cant get away with this,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made a statement on Twitter about the findings at the residential school, saying he was “terribly saddened” and vowed to provide support to the First Nations community to “bring these terrible wrongs to light.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
— With files from Global News’ Kelly Skjerven and the Canadian Press