A First Nation — one of the many groups of Indigenous people — in Canada announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former Indian residential school in the province of Saskatchewan. The news, which was announced in late June 2021, came a few weeks after another similar discovery in British Columbia of the unmarked graves of 215 children in the grounds of another former boarding school.
In their statement, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations that represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan described the discovery as “horrific and shocking,” and “the most significantly substantial to date in Canada.” The Cowessess First Nation Tribe found the remains at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
The residential schools were part of a system that took Indigenous children from their families over the course of more than a century between 1883 until their closing in the late 1990s. The goal of these schools was to forcibly assimilate these children, by preventing them from speaking their own languages and keeping them away from their tribes. Many of the children were never returned home, and died under often unknown circumstances. Stories of disease outbreaks, sexual, emotional, and physical abuse were rife in these schools.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the government of Canada in 2008, which investigated the schools, at least 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the system which was also described as “cultural genocide.” Today, Canada has 1.7 million Indigenous citizens.
In a virtual news conference in late June 2021, Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme clarified that these were unmarked graves and not a mass grave site. He added that some of the remains discovered may be of people who attended the church or were from nearby towns.
The recently discovered graveyard at the Marieval school was reportedly operating long after the school shut down. Archaeologists and Indigenous leaders predict there will be more such finds as the federal and provincial governments, as well as private companies are helping in the search for gravesites. The federal government has announced it would provide $3.9 million to Saskatchewan’s Indigenous groups to aid in their search for more graves.
On June 30, 2021, the Lower Kootenay Band, a First Nations group in British Columbia, announced that they had found 182 human remains in unmarked graves near another former residential school. In a press release they said they believed the remains were those of people from the bands of the Ktunaxa nation, which includes the Lower Kootenay Band, aq’am and other First Nation communities. The remains were reportedly first discovered last year, by the aq’am community that used ground penetrating radar technology.
“The Lower Kootenay Band is still in the very early stages of receiving information from the reports of the finding, but will provide updates as time progresses,” the band said.
Update 6/29/2021: Added statement from Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme.
Update 6/30/2021: Added news about remains found in British Columbia.