The number 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, announced the discovery of 54 unmarked graves on land belonging to two former boarding schools for Aboriginal children. 42 were discovered in downtown Fort Pelly and 12 in St. Philip. “These are not isolated cases, but deaths that have been hidden. Someone has to answer for these acts,” reserve chief Lee Kitchemonia told a news conference.
Kitchemonia said it was very difficult for her community to know that these graves were close to where she carried out many of her daily activities. “It’s very hurtful because of the way they hid them,” he added. The discovery in this region of Saskatchewan is the fifth of its kind. Last May, 215 unmarked graves were discovered 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 St. Eugene Mission grounds in British Columbia. In late January, 93 were discovered at St. Joseph’s Mission in British Columbia.
The network of Canadian boarding schools for Aboriginal children consisted of 139 centres. The first opened in 1883; the last closed in 1996. Its funding was provided by the federal government, while its administration was in the hands of religious communities (mostly Catholic). Some 150,000 indigenous miners went through these institutions. In 2019, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established that 4,134 children died in these centers. However, some experts estimate more than 6,000 dead. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last July: “The biggest mistake this country has made is the forced assimilation of indigenous minors through boarding schools.
Ted Quewezance, former chief of the Keeseekoose reservation and coordinator of the search team, said the discoveries were made possible by ground-penetrating radar. Quewezance noted that stories about these deaths have been circulating in his community for decades. “We all knew we were going to find graves,” he said. Fort Pelly Boarding School was open from 1895 to 1913, while St. Philip’s School operated from 1928 to 1969. Both were run by Catholic congregations.
Marc Miller, federal Minister of Crown Relations with Indigenous Groups, called the discovery a “painful reminder” of the ongoing trauma created by boarding schools. For his part, Scott Moe, Premier of Saskatchewan, said the province is in mourning and offered its full support to Indigenous communities.
Donald Bolen, Archbishop of Regina (capital of this province), was present at the press conference. “We need to hear their stories. I feel your emotions and your pain. I am so sorry for the abuse, racism and intergenerational trauma you have suffered,” he told residents of the reservation. A delegation comprised of Indigenous leaders and members of the Canadian Episcopal Conference will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican at the end of March. Indigenous groups across the country are calling on the Pontiff to apologize for the Church’s role in boarding schools. The meeting was scheduled for last December, but was postponed due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
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