WARNING: There are details in this story that some readers may find worrying
The announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of BC that an unmarked grave site in the Kamloops Residential School believed to contain the remains of 215 children has caused anger and sadness across Canada.
Saskatchewan leaders say the remains of other children in that province remain undiscovered.
Bobby Cameron, head of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), has asked that after the discovery in BC, every dormitory space in Saskatchewan be checked for unmarked burial sites. He said children who never came home from these schools deserved better.
He said the Kamloops discovery was heartbreaking and called it an “emotional roller coaster ride” while speaking to Saskatoon morning Leisha Grebinski on Monday.
“It is very painful to have children as young as three who are completely disrespectful, disregarded, simply tossed into the ground with no proper burial,” said Cameron, noting that funeral rites are incredibly important to indigenous communities.
“We’re all devastated.”
LISTEN | FSIN boss Bobby Cameron spoke to Leisha Grebinski on CBC’s Saskatoon Morning:
8:46FSIN leader reacts to mass grave at Kamloops Residential School, calls for action in Sask.
Cameron said the recent discovery underscored an urgent need to conduct similar ground radar work in Saskatchewan, where many more children may be buried.
“It will happen,” he said.
Cameron thanked the survivors who came forward to provide guidance on where to begin the searches. He said hearing these stories was an important part of the healing process.
“Many of our survivors are still healing and grieving, and we hope we can in some way help them find their way out,” said Cameron.
The call to action was repeated Monday afternoon by Saskatchewan’s Prime Minister Scott Moe. He announced that his government is working with the FSIN to urge the federal government to act.
At a press conference, Moe said the federal government should take the lead, but the province will help speed up the process in any way possible.
The Prime Minister said he had already spoken to the FSIN about the work to be done.
“If we have similar unlabeled locations with people here in Saskatchewan, we want to work as soon as possible to find out who is in those locations and take the first steps towards closing some families,” said Moe. “These are families who are our neighbors and our friends, who miss brothers, sisters, cousins, relatives, friends.”
Moe also urged the people of Saskatchewan to educate themselves and their children about the historical and current impact of Canada’s residential schooling system.
“This is certainly one of the, if not the biggest, specks in Canadian history and it’s right here in Saskatchewan,” he said.
“Sometimes there was total silence”: Survivor
The Cowesss First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan is already planning to investigate a burial site at the Marieval Residential School this summer.
Cowesss Chief Cadmus Delorme said the re-examination was an important step in healing community members. Delorme said only a third of the graves in this location have been marked and the First Nation wants to use ground penetrating radar technology to identify the rest.
This is important to Barry Kennedy, a survivor who attended the Cowesss First Nation dormitory for more than four years after he was taken away by his family on the Carry the Kettle First Nation.
Kennedy recalls being beaten by school staff. As a five-year-old he only felt fear and loneliness, he said.
“That first night I experienced fear in a number of ways,” he said. “You can hear the fear. You can feel the fear and you can smell the fear.”
Kennedy said he still wondered what kind of person he would be today if his identity and culture hadn’t been stolen from him as a child.
He said the memories of the school are still fresh in his mind today, more than 50 years later. He is still wondering about the children’s resilience.
“When you are five you don’t know anything about sex. You don’t know about pedophiles, you don’t know about rape, you don’t know about beatings, ”said Kennedy. “There is no one to help you.”
He said that some of the people in charge of looking after the children, referred to as “the keepers,” sometimes took boys to a separate room where they could hear screaming and crying when they were molested.
“Sometimes there was total silence,” he said, calling boarding schools a “playground for pedophiles”.
Kennedy recalls the night when a friend of his, Brian, was kidnapped. The boy never returned. Kennedy said he was still wondering what happened.
“He just disappeared,” he said. “If I know what I’m doing to this day, I would say that the possibility of finding Brian in one of these graves is very likely.”
Kennedy said it was important for him to share his experiences to ensure future generations don’t have to endure them.
“These mass graves all exist for a reason because these children were abducted,” he said. “These children were starved. Experiments were carried out on them. They died of loneliness, they died of physical abuse, and if you put that into context today, you would say murdered.”
Cameron said any work to investigate dormitory locations in the province will be rooted in ceremony and done slowly, carefully, and with the survivors in mind.
“We are First Nations people. We are survivors. We are resilient. We are strong and the power of prayer and ceremony will get us through this situation.”
There is support for everyone who is affected by the effects of the boarding schools and who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line was set up to support former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis mediation services by calling the national 24 hour emergency number: 1-866-925-4419.