There is work being conducted in Alberta to support Indigenous communities to locate unmarked burial sites amid Thursday’s announcement that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan.
The unmarked graves were found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in southeastern Saskatchewan and came just a few weeks after 215 unmarked graves were located at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
“The truth is that communities have known — they’ve known that so many places where their relatives and children never came home from residential schools are unmarked burials,” Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology director Kisha Supernant said.
“I wish that survivors could have been believed when they told those stories before and that the truth wouldn’t have required these, sort of, scanning methods and scientific methods.”
There were 139 residential schools in Canada and 25 were in Alberta, which was the most of any province, but it is uncertain how many unmarked burial sites are in Alberta. The Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology will be working with communities on an advocacy level to find unmarked sites.
“I think we have to reckon with the impact of the residential school system on Indigenous communities, not just in the past but also in the present, and this hopefully can help, especially non-Indigenous Canadians recognize the scope and scale of what happened,” Supernant said.
On Wednesday, the Alberta government announced it was committing $8 million to the Alberta Residential Community Research Grant to help Indigenous communities locate burial sites.
The Poundmarker’s Lodge sits on the grounds of the former Edmonton Indian Residential School. Supernant and her team are working with Elders and survivors to use ground-penetrating radar on the site. A request is also being made to the city of St. Albert and province for the return of the adjacent land because it has been identified by survivors as an area of concern.
“I think it’s essential to do this work of finding these children because we don’t actually fully understand the scope and scale of loss associated with the residential school system,” Supernant said.
The Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society executive director Cheryl Whiskeyjack said the discovery of the burial sites in B.C. and Saskatchewan has finally put the history of residential schools at the forefront.
“Before a month ago, this was a note in a history book or in a report that sat on someone’s shelf because it has been out there for a while, but now it’s on the news, it’s in our face, it’s on our social media channels and it’s very real,” she said.
“I think we can all relate to children and so it’s become a much bigger issue because it’s children.”
Whiskeyjack said it is important Canadians listen to what happened at residential schools and its impact on the Indigenous community.
“It’s going to be really hard to hear — it’s going to be really hard to digest, but you need to listen and from that will come some understanding and from that will come a path forward from this,” she said.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said it has not been confirmed whether all the unmarked graves at the Marieval site are that of children. The residential school gravesite was run by the Roman Catholic Church.
“We are treating this as a crime scene at the moment, and we’ll know more as continue our search,” Delorme said.
Marieval Indian Residential School operated between 1899 and 1997. Delorme said the school opened in 1898 and was closed in 1996.
Delorme said the children who attended the school were from the Treaty 4 territory, which spans southern Saskatchewan, and some children from areas in southwestern Manitoba also went to the school, according to the chief.
Delorme said there will be an attempt to identify those found in the unmarked graves.
“We want to make sure that we keep that place and preserve it, so many can come here and heal,” he said.
“It’s going to hurt in the coming months because the more we put names to them, the more it’s going to reopen the pains that many endured at the Marieval residential school.”
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.
Delorme has called for an apology from Pope Francis.
On Thursday, the Archdiocese of Regina released a statement about the discovery, apologizing for the church’s role in the atrocities.
“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.
The national centre’s public records list eight student deaths.
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.
At least 4,315 children have died while attending residential schools in Canada,according to official records.
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.