The Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School, approximately 160km east of Regina, Saskatchewan, on Thursday. The bodies were found using ground-penetrating sonar across an area of 44 000 square meters.
The site is believed to have been a cemetery for victims of the residential school, which operated from 1899 to 1996. Cowessess First Nation took over the school’s cemetery from the Catholic Church in the 1970s. Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme stressed in a news conference following the announcement that this was not a mass grave, but a series of unmarked graves. It is believed that the church had removed the grave markers sometime in the 1960s.
The discovery is the largest uncovering of remains at a former residential school since the discovery of 215 children’s remains in Kamloops, British Columbia, earlier this year. Since then, 1,323 bodies have been discovered at various sites across Canada, including those at Marieval. It is widely accepted there are many more yet to be found.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he was “terribly saddened to learn that the remains of children had been found in unmarked graves,” and that the discovery is “a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced–and continue to face–in this country.”
Recently there has been increased political pressure on the national government to increase the pace of the implementation of the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was created after a federal inquiry into the residential school system in Canada; the commission presented its findings in 2015. Since then, conservative estimates suggest only nine of the calls to action had been fully implemented.
After the discovery in Kamloops, opposition parties voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion that called for the federal government to aggressively implement the remaining calls to action and cease litigation against survivors of residential schools. The ruling minority Liberal party refused to vote on the matter.
One of the calls to action is to receive an apology from the Pope for the role of the Catholic Church, something the Papal office has not yet agreed to do. The Archdiocese of Regina, however, has issued an apology to Indigenous peoples of Saskatchewan and pledged “meaningful, concrete acts” to accompany his words. The Provincial opposition leader Ryan Meili echoed the Archdiocese sentiment, saying Canadians “have to face these horrors head on and take real, meaningful and swift action on Truth and Reconciliation.”
The Canadian Parliament passed a bill on Wednesday recognizing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), 14 years after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly. The bill requires the government of Canada to align the country’s laws with the declaration and implement a plan for achieving its stated objectives. Canada initially voted against UNDRIP, and only signed on in 2016.
An estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools across Canada between the 1880s and 1996, when the last school finally closed. The TRC documented the stories of survivors, which often told of mistreatment by teachers and caretakers, including emotional, sexual and physical abuses.