Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is “terribly saddened” following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan, vowing to provide support to the First Nations community to “bring these terrible wrongs to light.”
An estimated 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval residential school east of Regina, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said Thursday.
“My heart breaks for the Cowessess First Nation, and for all Indigenous communities across Canada,” Trudeau said in a statement Thursday shortly after the announcement.
“No child should have ever been taken away from their families and communities, and robbed of their language, culture, and identity,” he added.
Cowessess First Nation had begun the process of locating unmarked graves on June 2 with the help of Saskatchewan Polytechnic using ground-penetrating radar technology. It says the number of graves found is the highest to date in Canada.
Marieval Indian Residential School operated between 1899 and 1997.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation records, the school was constructed by Roman Catholic missionaries. The federal government started funding the school in 1901.
The discovery comes just a month after a First Nation in British Columbia found what are believed to be the remains of 215 children buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The school was once the largest in Canada’s residential school network.
Trudeau said the findings in Marieval and Kamloops are “part of a larger tragedy.”
“They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country. And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”
He said the government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need.
“While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.”
Other members of the Parliament also expressed their grief and support.
“The discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval (Cowessess) Residential School has only deepened the pain felt by families, survivors and Indigenous Peoples. This was a truth that was far too often denied. It can no longer be,” said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Twitter.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett described the news as “tragic and devastating”.
An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended the schools between the 1860s and 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented stories from survivors and families and issued a report in 2015.
The report details mistreatment at the schools, including the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, and at least 4,100 deaths.
While the Trudeau government from its inception in 2015 promised it would implement every last one of the 94 Calls to Action (CTA), the only one of the six involving missing children and burials that has been completed is number 72 — the student memorial register.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole urged the federal government to take swift action and deliver on the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action 71 to 76 involving missing children and providing healing for families.
“This discovery is a somber reminder that so much more work needs to be done to address the devastating and harmful effects that residential schools had, and still have, on many survivors today,” O’Toole said in a statement.
In a letter addressed to the Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme, the Archbishop of Regina apologized for the “failures and sins of Church leaders and staff in the past towards the people of Cowessess.”
“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 -including assisting in accessing information that will help to provide names and information about those buried in unmarked graves – and to stand by you in whatever way you request,” Catholic Archbishop Don Bolen said.
FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said his community deserved more than apologies and sympathies. “Our people deserve justice,” he said during a virtual news conference, calling on a full public inquiry.
— with files from the Global News’ Kelly Skjerven, David Akin and The Canadian Press
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.