On Thursday, an indigenous organisation in the Canadian state of Saskatchewan announced the discovery of an estimated 751 unmarked graves inside a now-defunct Catholic residential school, only weeks after a similar, smaller find shook the country.
The most recent find, the largest to yet, is a sobering reminder of the years of cruelty and prejudice faced by indigenous people in Canada, even as they continue to struggle for justice and improved living circumstances.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “terribly saddened” by the discovery at Marieval Indian Residential School about 87 miles (140 km) from the provincial capital Regina. He told indigenous people that “the hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear.”
It is not clear how many of the remains detected belong to children, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme told reporters, adding that oral stories mentioned adults being buried at the site.
Delorme later told Reuters some of the graves belong to non-indigenous people who may have belonged to the church. He said the First Nation hopes to find the gravestones that once marked these graves, after which they may involve police.
Delorme said the church that ran the school removed the headstones.
“We didn’t remove the headstones. Removing headstones is a crime in this country. We are treating this like a crime scene,” he said.
The residential school system, which operated between 1831 and 1996, removed about 150,000 indigenous children from their families and brought them to Christian residential schools, mostly Catholic, run on behalf of the federal government.
“Canada will be known as a nation who tried to exterminate the First Nations,” said Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan. “This is just the beginning.”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report that found the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide, has said a cemetery was left on the Marieval site after the school building was demolished.
According to spokesman Eric Gurash, the local Catholic archdiocese paid Cowessess First Nation C$70,000 ($56,813) in 2019 to assist repair the site and identify unmarked remains. He said that the archbishop provided Cowessess with all of the school’s death records at the time when Catholic parties were in charge.
Archbishop Don Bolen, in a letter to Delorme on Thursday, reaffirmed his previous apologies for the “failures and sins of Church leaders and staff” and offered to assist in identifying the remains.
Heather Bear, who attended Marieval as a day student in the 1970s and is now the vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, recalls a tiny cemetery at the school, but not the magnitude disclosed on Thursday.
“You just didn’t want to be walking around alone in (the school),” she recalled. There was a “sadness that moves. And I think every residential school has that sadness looming.”
The Cowessess First Nation launched a ground-penetrating radar search on June 2 after the country was horrified by the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. As of Wednesday, radar at Marieval identified 751 “hits” with a 10% margin of error, implying at least 600 burials on the site.
The Kamloops finding reignited longstanding scars in Canada regarding the residential school system, which forcefully removed indigenous children from their families and subjected them to starvation and physical and sexual abuse.
Pope Francis said in early June that he was pained by the Kamloops revelation and called for respect for the rights and cultures of native peoples. But he stopped short of the direct apology some Canadians had demanded.
Thursday was a difficult day, Delorme told Reuters. But he wants his young children to know “we will get the reconciliation one day with action like today.”
Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto Editing by Chizu Nomiyama