World, Americas

Unmarked graves found in former Canadian residential school still fresh on agenda

Church-run boarding schools from 1840 through 1997 forcibly enrolled Indigenous kids to integrate them into white-dominated communities

Islam Dogru   | 27.06.2021
Unmarked graves found in former Canadian residential school still fresh on agenda A view of unmarked graves in a former catholic Indian residential school in Cowessess first nation community of Marieval, in Sakatchewan, Canada on June 26, 2021. ( Amru Salahuddien - Anadolu Agency )

SASKATCHEWAN, Canada

The discovery of 751 unmarked graves of children at a former Indian residential school in western Canada still resonates and remains on the agenda.

The Indigenous Canadians, known as the First Nation, view the recently discovered graves in the Marieval Indian Residential School in the province of Saskatchewan as concrete evidence of the tragic stories regarding children in residential schools, circulating within the local community for over a century.

Anadolu Agency visited the region for on-site observation and talked to the local community about the unearthing of unmarked graves in the residential schools, which was a shocking incident not only in Canada but around the world.

School located in countryside

The Marieval Indian Residential School is located about 165 kilometers (102.5 miles) east of Regina, capital of Saskatchewan, in an almost desolate region.

Some 4,000 people reportedly live in these lands belonging to Cowessess First Nation. It is extremely difficult to see a mass settlement in this large rural land where one can spot electrical poles and sporadic houses.

While mobile phones hardly operate in the region, one has to travel approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles) by car to reach the nearest mass settlement or town to meet their needs such as fuel or grocery shopping.

Gravesites marked with small flags

The site of the Marieval Indian Residential School, which was established by Catholic missionaries in the 1890s and funded by the state, is currently vacant land. It is stated that the school was handed over to the Cowessess First Nation in the 1990s before being demolished.

Every burial in the school site that was found by radars capable of scanning the earth deeply was marked with small colorful flags and solar lights.

A community member appointed by the Cowessess First Nation administration is on guard at the gravesite as the governance of these lands is solely in the hands of the Cowessess First Nation people and the Canadian government does not interfere except providing financial assistance.

Evidence of bad practices against Indigenous people

Media members are not encouraged to visit the gravesite, according to Jonathan Lerat, a council member of the Cowessess First Nation, who instructed the Anadolu Agency crew not to get closer to the site, shoot film or pictures, communicate with locals, or ask them any questions.

An Anadolu Agency correspondent was able to get comments from two locals, one of whom had requested anonymity from the media.

An elderly woman named Ruth, who identified herself as a devout Catholic, argued that she too was a student of the church's boarding schools from 1948 to the mid-1950s and did not experience any misbehavior contrary to allegations. She asserted that most of the children who lost their lives in such places were victims of different diseases.

A local man with traditional clothing, who came to the gravesite to pray and asked to remain anonymous, opined that he thought the church and school operating in the region were destroyed by fire in a bid to destroy evidence.

But the recently discovered gravesites of children were proof of ill practices against his people and the tragedies that had been circulating among locals for a long time, he said.

Both individuals did not want their images to be taken by Anadolu Agency.

Commemoration ceremony

Around the traditional Indigenous tent pitched nearby the gravesite area, a commemoration event was held on the evening of June 26 in memory of the children who lost their lives at the residential schools.

Nearly 200 community members participated in the event where traditional hymns and prayers were performed and they stood in silence for children without tombstones.

Speaking at the ceremony, Cadmus Delorme, the chief of Cowessess First Nation, said the children were forcibly taken from their families, put to church schools, and the Canadian administration was responsible for this.

He added that the new generation should know about that as the Indigenous people need young people to keep their endurance.

Only a few journalists were permitted to observe the ceremony from afar, during which the participants lighted solar lights at the burial site.

What happened?

Delorme announced on June 24 that unmarked gravesites containing the remains of 751 children were found in the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School, which operated until the 1990s.

"This is not a mass gravesite. These are unmarked graves," Delorme had said, adding that the Roman Catholic Church governing the cemetery removed the marking points on the graves in the 1960s.
According to the official Canadian records, the school existed from 1899 to 1997.

On May 29, unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered in a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia after extensive radar scanning operations launched in 139 schools across the country.

Referring to the children graves, which sparked widespread outrage, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said they were one of the "darkest chapters in Canadian history."

The residential schools, the earliest of which opened in 1840 and the last in 1997, are remembered in history as institutions where more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families.

The children were separated from their families and Indigenous cultures to be incorporated into white-dominated communities and the majority of them are said to have suffered from malpractices, hunger, and cold, as well as physical, sexual, and even medical experiments.

In 2008, Canada formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring light on the tragedy that happened in residential schools.

After hearing from more than 6,000 living victims, the committee ended its investigation in 2015 and produced a 4,000-page report describing the events as "cultural genocide."
While some sources claim that there were 4,200 child fatalities in residential schools, the commission reported that there were 5,995. This is because the deaths were not documented by the church administrations.

*Writing by Ali Murat Alhas in Ankara

Cowessess community members kept church parts hidden

SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA - JUNE 27: Chasity Delorme, member of Cowessess first nation community checks bricks and ruins of Marieval residential school, Marieval, Saskatchewan, Canada on June 27, 2021. Chasity's grandparents are both survivors of Marieval residential school, her uncle was also a survivor of the same school. After demolishing the church and the residential school in 1996, Cowessess community members kept the dome, the cross, and hundreds of bricks as a reminder of their suffering, later they hid the dome in the forest as it was traumatizing to the school survivors. ( Amru Salahuddien - Anadolu Agency )

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