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'We've just opened the door': Reckoning with Canada's history as 751 unmarked graves confirmed in Saskatchewan

Last Updated Jun 24, 2021 at 8:59 pm PDT


The Cowessess First Nation announced 751 unmarked graves have been uncovered on the site of a former residential school

Indigenous educators in B.C. say there is no single, simple route to reconciliation

Editor’s note: This article contains some disturbing details about experiences at residential schools in Canada and may be upsetting to some readers. For those in need of emotional support, the 24-hour Residential Schools Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419.

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — The confirmation of more than 750 unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in Saskatchewan comes just weeks after the remains of 215 children were found in Kamloops. It’s verification of what Indigenous people have long known and has many Canadians wondering what to do next — and how to help.

Indigenous educators in B.C. say there is no simple or single way in which to advance reconciliation, but listening, learning, and reckoning with the brutal truth about colonization, genocide, and the residential school system is a place for non-Indigenous people to start.

Monique Gray Smith is a Cree, Lakota, and Scottish author and educator who live on Vancouver Island. She has written books about resilience and reconciliation for readers of all ages, and spoken about these issues to audiences across North America.

She says being an ally can start with listening.

“Often allies want to get to the doing, ‘Well what can I do?’ That’s an important step, but we’re not necessarily there yet, we are at the place of holding space for everybody to understand this truth. We need to be listening to each other to allow the truths to land in our hearts, and in our minds, and in our spirit, so that we can begin to process the reality of what is unfolding in this place we call Canada — the truths that we’ve known in our communities, and now with confirmation that the rest of Canada is beginning to understand,” she says.

“We’ve just opened the door to probably the greatest atrocity and the greatest act of genocide in this place we call Canada. There’s no denying the truth of what has unfolded here. For people to deny it, it’s about their own fear or their own colonization, about not wanting to believe that something like this could happen in this place. Or it’s that they have elements of racism and do not uphold the dignity of us as Indigenous people in this place we call Canada, and so for them, it’s easy to dismiss the truth. And there, we have a lot of work still to do, because there are a number of citizens who are in that place still.”

RELATED: Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc shares ways to support First Nation after remains discovered in Kamloops

But Gray Smith says Indigenous people can’t be expected to do all the work of educating non-Indigenous people.

“They don’t always have to hear the stories from somebody who is living through the experiences either as survivors or as intergenerational survivors. And that’s part of the work is for people to figure it out themselves,” she says.

“Every single person will have their own response so I don’t want to just say here’s one thing you can do, because somebody else might say be active, somebody might say, read books because I don’t want to tell you the truth all the time.”

Peggy Janicki, Indigenous educator with the BC Teachers’ Federation says non-Indigenous Canadians need to identify and root out racist stereotypes they hold, and look at the history they have been taught with a critical eye.

“It’s absolutely a reckoning with ourselves the colonization and decolonization landscape is really within ourselves

“If folks can really reflect on what they know and how they know it, what informs their knowing — I think that can be an important step. It’s an introductory step, because what you know and how you know it, interrogating that history, your biography, your relationships, will certainly begin your journey.”

RELATED: 751 unmarked graves found at former residential school in Saskatchewan

The Cowessess First Nation announced Thursday that 751 unmarked graves have been uncovered on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

Chief Cadmus Delorme said they believe both adults and children were buried at the site.

“We always knew that there were graves here,” Delorme said, adding they are working to identify all the dead.

“We want to honour our loved ones that lay there today and we want to make sure we keep that place and preserve it so many can come here and heal.”

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said this discovery is only the beginning, and the work of searching residential school sites “will not stop until we find all our children.”

The Cowessess First Nation started their radar penetrating research on June 2 and the discovery of the remains has happened over the last three weeks.

“We will do a search of every residential school site. We will tell the stories of the children of our people who died. We will not stop until we locate all of them,” Cameron said.

“The world is watching as we unearth the findings of genocide … Canada will be known as the nation who tried to exterminate their First Nations. Now, we have evidence.”

RELATED: Pope silent, Catholic bishops ‘shocked’ after children’s remains found in Kamloops

The former residential school was built in 1899 by Roman Catholic missionaries. The federal government began funding the school in 1901 and took over its administration in 1969. The school was turned over to the Cowessess First Nation in 1987, and it was closed in 1996.

When asked what is needed from the Catholic Church after this discovery, Chief Delorme said, “The Pope needs to apologize for what has happened to the Marieval residential school, the impact on Cowessess First Nation survivors and descendants. An apology is one stage of many in the healing journey.”

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation responds to discovery, renews call for papal apology

The discovery comes soon after another mass grave was unearthed by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last month.

The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found buried on the school grounds – once the largest in Canada’s residential school system.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said at the time the discovery was an “unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

In a statement issued Thursday, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief and Council say they are mourning the horrific discovery along with the Cowessess First Nation, survivors, and intergenerational survivors of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

“Cowessess, the people in Cowessess’s care in the unmarked graves, the families and communities affected, will be part of our prayers and ceremonies,” the statement says.

“We regret that we know well what Cowessess First Nation is going through, given the preliminary findings we shared with the world on May 27, 2021. It has been a heavy burden but one we carry with love, honour, and respect for the Kamloops Indian Residential School children – who we refer to as Le Estcwéý (The Missing) that are in our caretakership. As with Cowessess First Nation, for Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, this is only phase one, more investigation is needed.”

The Nation reiterated their call for the Pope to issue an apology, something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for in 2015.

“We, too, have called upon the Pope for an apology and agree with the statement made by Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme. An apology is but one of the many stages of the healing journey.”

The federal government has since offered $27 million in funding for all First Nations communities to help identify and investigate marked and unmarked burial grounds near residential schools.

With files from Meredith Bond and The Canadian Press