The discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of two former residential schools opens the door to more questions, said the chief of a Saskatchewan First Nation.
“The locations we’re scanning were identified by survivors and knowledge keepers from oral history,” said Ted Quewezance, the former chief of the First Nation and a residential school survivor.
“Ground-penetrating radar simply validated our oral history.”
Chief Lee Kitchemonia says it is a very solemn day.
“It’s going to be a very tough time for our community knowing that we have unmarked graves in our community,” Kitchemonia said during a press conference Tuesday.
“Somebody has to be held accountable for it.”
Fort Pelly Residential School operated from 1905 until it closed in 1913. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says the principal was fired in 1911 after it was reported he was drunk and threatening everyone at the school.
St. Philips Residential School opened in 1928 and closed in 1969. The commission found the school had a widespread problem with sexual and physical abuse, which led to the dismissal of a school supervisor during the school’s final decade.
Both institutions were run by the Catholic Church.
The commission, which documented stories from survivors and issued a final report in 2015, has a record of two student deaths at St. Philip’s and two at Fort Pelly.
Kitchemonia said he has heard the stories and the community deserves to know what happened at the schools.
“That’s what it really boils down to, is seeing your kid leave your house in the morning time, not realizing that you’ll never, ever see your child again for as long as you live, not knowing any answers to where those children are gone,” he said.
“All you know is that they’ve gone to school and they’ve never returned.”
Quewezance said there were 42 hits at Fort Pelly and 12 hits at St. Philips. He said there could be more graves, but searches were put on hold due to snow.
Now, he said, they are seeking closure.
“Every time a missing and murdered woman or a girl is identified, it is a reminder of the loss of one of our loved ones,” he said.
“Every announcement of residential schools, residential grave sites re-traumatizes us survivors and our families and our communities.
He also had harsh words for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Quewezance said Trudeau’s apology to families and communities affected by residential schools was just politics.
“Many survivors did not feel comfortable with his apology. It didn’t come from the heart, it was just politics,” he said.
“There wasn’t a next step to his apology.”
The head of the Assembly of First Nations said the federal government and the churches must be held accountable for what happened at residential schools.
Grand Chief RoseAnne Archibald said the path forward for healing is accountability.
“We have to acknowledge that there has to be truth before reconciliation, that’s one of the main tenets,” she said.
“Every single government and person in Canada has the responsibility to influence meaningful and positive change in order for us to move forward.”
Archibald said one step the government of Canada needs to do is provide assistance and fund a national healing fund.
“We need not only a healing fund for First Nations, but we need it for Canadians,” she said.
“Many of our allies out there have said to me how devastated they are every time we make these recoveries. They want healing as well.”
Mark Miller, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said Tuesday’s findings are devastating and a deeply personal tragedy for Keeseekoose.
He said the federal government remains committed to providing the support needed to uncover the truth as to what happened at residential schools.
“Canada remains committed to providing the supports as we undertake this work in your own way, according to your wishes and your community’s wishes, and specifically families and survivors,” he said.
“The stories of these children must be remembered and honoured, and families deserve the truth so they can work towards that closure.”
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.
— with files from The Canadian Press