The unmarked graves of more than 751 people have been discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, after hundreds of remains were found in other provinces in the past month.
“We are seeing the results of the genocide that Canada committed — genocide on our treaty land,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said in a virtual press conference Thursday.
Cameron said the burial site on Cowessess First Nation, 90 minutes east of Regina, is evidence of “a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nation people.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement shortly after the announcement saying he is “terribly saddened” by the news. “My heart breaks for the Cowessess First Nation, and for all Indigenous communities across Canada,” he said.
The news comes after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced in May that the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Researchers say hundreds of unmarked graves are also believed to be located in Manitoba related to the residential school system in that province.
There has been considerable political pressure in recent years on federal party leaders to accept the past treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada as genocide, including the nationwide residential school system removed children from their families to enroll them in a system that strove to “take the Indian out of the child.”
A 2019 inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women concluded what has happened was genocide.
“This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Inuit, Métis and First Nations rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations,” read the report.
Following the discovery in Kamloops, Trudeau said earlier this month he accepted the conclusion of a 2019 inquiry that “what happened amounts to genocide.”
“Removing headstones is a crime in this country,” he said. “We are treating this like a crime scene.” Delorme suggested through the oral history of community members, the headstones were removed by representatives of the Catholic Church in the 1960s.
Small flags, 751 of them, now dot the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, each marking the remains of a body. Delorme said both adults and children are believed to be buried in the graves.
Because of poor record keeping, it’s hard to pinpoint what the cause of death was for many students who disappeared at residential schools. Survivors have said some students who were hospitalized never returned, inadequate food supply left some children more vulnerable to disease, and others were threatened with death if they reported physical and sexual abuse.