The amount of shame and pain continues to rise in Canada. The authorities of the Keeseekoose Reservation, located in the province of Saskatchewan and inhabited by members of the Saulteaux people, have announced the discovery of 54 unmarked graves on the land of two former boarding schools for indigenous children. 42 were discovered in downtown Fort Pelly and 12 on St. Philip. “These are not isolated cases, but deaths that were hidden. Someone has to answer for these acts,” Lee Kitchemonia, chief of the reserve, said at a news conference.
Kitchemonia stated that it was very difficult for her community to know that these graves were close to where they carry out many of their daily activities. “It’s very hurtful because of the way they hid them,” he added. The discovery in this area of Saskatchewan is the fifth of its kind. Last May, 215 unmarked graves were found in Kamloops, British Columbia. In June it was the turn of 751 at the former boarding school in Marieval, Saskatchewan. A few weeks later, 182 were added to the site of St. Eugene’s Mission in British Columbia. At the end of January, 93 were discovered in St. Joseph’s Mission, British Columbia.
The network of Canadian boarding schools for indigenous children consisted of 139 centers. The first opened in 1883; the last closed in 1996. Its funding was carried out by the federal government, while its governance was in the hands of religious communities (mostly Catholic). About 150,000 native minors have gone through these institutions. In 2019, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that 4,134 children died in these centers. However, some experts estimate more than 6,000 deaths. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared last July, “The biggest mistake this country has made is the forcible admission of Indigenous minors through boarding schools.”
Ted Quewezance, former leader of the Keeseekoose Reservation and coordinator of the search team, said the finds were made possible by ground-penetrating radar. Quewezance noted that stories of these deaths have been circulating in his community for decades. “We all knew we would find graves,” he said. Fort Pelly Boarding School was open from 1895 to 1913, while St. Philip’s School was in operation from 1928 to 1969. Both were run by Catholic congregations.
Marc Miller, federal minister for the Crown’s relations with indigenous groups, called the discovery a “painful reminder” of the ongoing trauma caused by boarding schools. Saskatchewan Prime Minister Scott Moe, for his part, said the province is in mourning and offered his full support to the indigenous communities.
Donald Bolen, Archbishop of Regina (capital of this province), attended the press conference. “We need to hear their stories. I feel your emotions and your pain. I am truly sorry for the abuse, racism and intergenerational trauma you have suffered,” he told residents of the reservation. A delegation made up of indigenous leaders and members of the Canadian Episcopal Conference will meet Pope Francis at the Vatican in late March. Indigenous groups in the country ask the pope to apologize for the church’s role in boarding schools. The meeting was scheduled for December last year, but was postponed due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
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