A First Nation in Canada’s Saskatchewan province has announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at a now-defunct residential school, just weeks after a similar discovery in British Columbia prompted a fresh reckoning over the country’s colonial past.
Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation said on Thursday that the graves were found on the site of the Marieval Indian residential school, also known as Grayson after a search with ground-penetrating radar was launched on 1 June.
“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” said Delorme at a press conference on Thursday morning, adding that the discovery has “reopened the pain” that many suffered at the school. “The grave site is there. It is real.”
It is not known how many of the remains belong to children, Delorme said. “There are oral stories that there are adults in this gravesite as well.”
Last month the remains of 215 children, some as young as three, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia.
The Marieval school operated from 1898 to 1996 about 87 miles east of Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. The Cowessess First Nation took over the school’s cemetery from the Catholic church in the 1970s.
News of the discovery prompted a fresh outpouring of grief and frustration from national leaders.
The Assembly of First Nations national chief, Perry Bellegarde, who comes from Little Bear First Nation in the the province of Saskatchewan, tweeted that the latest discovery is “absolutely tragic, but not surprising”.
“I urge all Canadians to stand with First Nations in this extremely difficult and emotional time.”
The grim discovery brings the total of unmarked graves discovered in the past month to around 1,000, with experts predicting more will come as provincial governments announce funding to help Indigenous communities conduct their own searches.
From the 19th century, more than 150,000 First Nations children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.
They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused. The Canadian government formally apologized in parliament in 2008 and admitted that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant.
“I always wonder how a person who’s supposed to be a Christian person, a priest, can abuse a seven-year-old girl,” Carol Lavallee, who was taken from her home at age six in a cattle truck to attend Marieval, told a provincial healing gathering in 2007.
Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages; they also lost touch with their parents and customs.
Indigenous leaders have cited that legacy of abuse and intergenerational trauma persist today as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
“There are going to be many more of these stories in the future,” said Delorme. “This is Cowessess’s moment of our truth.”