It could be the largest discovery of unmarked graves at a former Indigenous residential school yet.
Weeks after the remains of children were found outside a school in Kamloops, B.C., hundreds more have been at a former residential school in Saskatchewan, according to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 nations in the province.
In a statement, the federation said the graves are at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, which was located in the southeastern corner of the province on what is now the Cowessess First Nation and operated from 1899 to 1997.
According to the notice sent to media, the Cowessess chief is expected to provide more details on the “horrific and shocking” discovery in a briefing Thursday morning.
The discovery of the remains of as many as 215 children outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., was a revelation that shone a fresh spotlight on the brutal abuse endured by Indigenous students at the network of schools that operated in Canada for decades.
But at the time, experts warned that the discovery was likely only the beginning.
Canada once had about 130 institutions spread across the country. The last shut its doors in the mid-1990s. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended these residential schools.
Estimates vary, but the commission put it at just over 4,000 dead, which would mean that more than one in 50 children who went to the schools died there.
Marieval was located in the Qu’Appelle Valley of southeastern Saskatchewan and initially operated by nuns from the Roman Catholic Church, according to a history recounted in an ebook called “Shattering the Silence” that was published by the University of Regina in 2017 as a resource for teachers.
The federal government bought the school for $70,000 in 1926.
In 1949, parents at the Cowessess reserve asked the government for a non-religious day school that could provide a “higher standard of education,” but were denied. The federal government took over the school in 1968 before the Cowessess took it over in 1981. The school was closed in 1997.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015 included testimony from a former student of Marieval.
Ronalee Lavallee, who attended the school in the 1960s and 1970s and then later returned to the school as a child-care worker, said in testimony she had developed arthritis in her knees as a result of all the praying students were forced to do.
She recalled that a number of students from northern Saskatchewan spoke fluent Cree and that at night, they would teach the language to the other students.
“We wanted to learn this language, and how we used to take turns watching for the nuns so that we wouldn’t get into trouble,” she told the commission. “And I think, just think, that was 1970 or ’71, that’s not so long ago, and they were still doing that to us?”
She testified the school’s nature changed after it came under band management.
“When our First Nation took over the boarding school, and the nuns were no longer there and the priest, and I could see that difference. It was, like, it was so much lighter, and I could see that in the children. They were so much freer.”
The building itself was demolished in 1999 — a controversial move at the time that illustrated the dilemma posed by the former schools littered across the country.
While some in the community wanted the school preserved as a museum and a reminder of the physical and sexual abuse suffered there, others considered it a black mark that needed to be torn down to make way for a new school, according to a Canadian Press story from 1999.
“(The history) is no reason to save it, and it is no reason to demolish it,” then-Chief Terrance Pelletier was quoted as saying at the time, adding that they had 250 students in need of a new school.
“Why would we want to keep a piece of garbage like (Marieval School) around?”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
With files from Douglas Quan