It was a sombre announcement made by the chief of the Cowessess First Nation on June 24.
Chief Cadmus Delorme said an estimated 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
“In the 1960s, the Catholic Church removed the headstones and today, we have over 600 unmarked graves,” Delorme said at the announcement.
The former school operated from 1899 to 1997 and was run by the Roman Catholic Church until 1968.
The discovery was made using ground-penetrating radar technology to identify the unmarked graves.
The announcement came just weeks after 215 unmarked burial sites were reported at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
“The uncovering of unmarked graves was something that our Indigenous people have always said, but nobody wanted to believe them,” said Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was saddened when he learned about the discovery.
“My heart breaks for the Cowessess First Nation, and for all Indigenous communities across Canada,” Trudeau said in a statement 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.”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission published a report that found the country’s residential schools amounted to cultural genocide.
More than 4,315 children died while attending residential schools in Canada and since the horrific news out of Saskatchewan, the number has grown.
“This is truly triggering. There are residential school survivors that are watching when media tell the story, when updates come, when numbers are verified and they get triggered because some of them have watched graves being dug as little kids,” Delorme said.
Searches with ground-penetrating radar are also underway in Brantford, Ont., at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, and in Williams Lake, B.C., at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.
The discovery at Cowessess sparked calls for Canada Day activities to be cancelled, and a number of communities in the province put a pause on activities that day.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he supported the decision made by those communities.
“On this Canada Day, in particular, I think I will also be reflecting much more than I have on other Canada Days as to our history — both our positive history in this nation, but also our history that is not so positive and quite negative,” Moe said.
“We also have a responsibility as community organizations, but I think most importantly as individuals … and educating ourselves on what Canada’s shared history is with our Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people and understanding that we need to do better as we move forward.”
Flags were lowered for months across Canada in memory of the lost children and the residential school survivors.
In September, Delorme said 300 of the 751 unmarked graves at Cowessess had been identified.
A month later, he joined in with a number of voices calling for an apology from Pope Francis.
“He should be coming here to talk to the residential school survivors and families and descendants of survivors to apologize for the role the Roman Catholic Church played in the legacy we inherited of residential schools,” Delorme said.
Delorme says the discoveries do hold hope for the future.
“It’s a validation. It verifies that truth must come before reconciliation in this country, both Indigenous and (non-Indigenous),” he said.
“We all have to reset our compass just a little bit for the next 50 years to make sure that truth and reconciliation truly is implemented.”
In December, the federal government said roughly $703,000 over three years would be given to Cowessess’s gravesite reclamation project.
The money is to go toward research, archival and statement gathering, additional fieldwork, commemorative markers, electronic mapping of all marked and unmarked graves, and a monument.
“The end goal is to identify a name for each unmarked grave, and will be a place to honour the ones who went before us and provide a place of healing for ones impacted by the unmarked graves,” Delorme said.
— with files from The Canadian Press
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.