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Chilling accounts

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Two separate but chilling accounts from the same school show the challenges of looking into the painful and complicated question of missing children and unmarked graves at Indian residential schools.

The Roman-Catholic Muscowequan Indian Residential School was built 150 kilometres north of Regina and, in its day, it took in Cree, Saulteaux and Métis students.

The grounds are located in the village of Lestock near the Muskowekwan Ojibway First Nation.

Federal records indicate burials at the former grounds date back to the early 1900s. The school closed in 1981.

School survivor Irene Favel recounted witnessing a newborn's death by fire during her time at Muscowequan from 1941-1949.

In a YouTube broadcast posted this month, Favel, now an elderly woman, describes her hard life as a child in residential school. She recalls the day she saw school staff carry a newborn baby wrapped in pink through the kitchen and into the adjacent furnace room.

Incredibly, she claims the mother was a child of seven.

"They took that baby into the... furnace room and burned it alive. You could smell the flesh cooking," Favel says, her voice soft but clear.

A report from a federal working group to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the issue of missing children and unmarked graves turned up another chilling story.

A graveyard of unmarked graves was accidently excavated by construction crews laying new sewer line in the area 20 years ago.

On July 20, 1992, heavy equipment sliced through three graves near the site of an old student residence on the former grounds.

"Due to the large excavating equipment being used, the remains were not noticed immediately upon disturbance," federal accounts in the report show.

The next day, July 21, 1992, there was more digging. And more graves. This time there was no missing them.

Heavy equipment uncovered 15 graves, all in a row, along the line surveyed for the new sewer. The contractor said it looked like there was a second row of graves just above the first row.

The disturbed remains were wrapped in plastic and locked in a storage shed while the authorities were called.

Three days later, elders representing seven First Nation bands met on the site and work shut down. Eventually, work on the line went ahead and disturbed human remains were ceremonially re-interred.

Records on the school showed a graveyard after a flu epidemic swept the area in the early 1900s and graves moved in 1935 for a new residence.

In 1944, a priest levelled the rest of the cemetery, removing all traces of it, according to an elder interviewed by the working group who had attended the school as a child in the 1940s.

Manitoba had 14 schools. Federal records show cemeteries at two: Brandon and Norway House. The cemetery in Brandon was almost completely obliterated.

If you know of cemeteries at other Manitoba residential schools, email alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2011 H4

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