In Canada, Another ‘Horrific’ Discovery of Indigenous Children’s Remains

An Indigenous group said the remains of hundreds of children had been found in unmarked graves on the site of a former boarding school in Saskatchewan.,


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REGINA, Saskatchewan — A Canadian Indigenous group on Wednesday announced the “horrific and shocking discovery” of the remains of hundreds of children at the site of a former school in the province of Saskatchewan, the largest such discovery to date.

It came weeks after the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves on the grounds of another former boarding school in British Columbia.

Both schools were part of a system that took Indigenous children in the country from their families, sometimes by force, and housed them in boarding schools. A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the practice “cultural genocide.” Many children never returned home, and their families were given only vague explanations of their fates, or none at all.

In a statement, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said that the latest remains numbered in the hundreds and were “the most significantly substantial to date in Canada.” It did not give an exact figure.

The discovery was made by the Cowessess First Nation at the Marieval Indian Residential School, about 87 miles from the provincial capital, Regina. The federation’s chief, Bobby Cameron, said that the group planned a formal announcement on Thursday.

“There was always talk and speculation and stories, but to see this number — it’s a pretty significant number,” Chief Cameron said. “It’s going to be difficult and painful and heartbreaking.”

The latest findings are likely to deepen the nation’s debate over its history of exploiting Indigenous people. The discoveries will refocus attention on the horrors of the schools where sexual, physical and emotional abuse were common, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found.

When Justin Trudeau took office as the prime minister in 2015, he placed taking up the commission’s 94 recommendations as his top priority. But progress has been slow, in part because some of them are beyond the federal government’s control. Chief Cameron and several other Indigenous leaders say that they hope the discovery of the children’s remains will accelerate the process.

The investigations into the fate of the missing children are a vindication for Canada’s Indigenous people, whose oral histories suggesting that thousands of children had disappeared from the schools had often been met with skepticism.

“There’s no denying this: All of the stories told by our survivors are true,” Chief Cameron said. “This is what the Catholic Church in Canada and the government of Canada of the day forced on our children.”

It is unclear how many children were sent to the schools, never to return home. Disease, including the Spanish flu outbreak a century ago, often swept through the overcrowded school dormitories. Some children died from exposure after escaping. And testimony by former students before the commission included accounts of the incineration of bodies of infants born to girls who had been impregnated by priests and monks.

The commission estimated that about 4,100 children vanished. But an Indigenous former judge who led the panel said in an email earlier this month that he now believed the number was “well beyond 10,000.”

The remains of the 215 children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia through the use of ground-penetrating radar. Much like a M.R.I. scan, the technology produces images of anomalies in the soil.

An official at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said the latest analysis, which relied on the same technology, began about three weeks ago, not long after the announcement of preliminary findings about the Kamloops school by Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation.

The search at the Kamloops school is still continuing, and the First Nation leaders say that they expected a final report would increase the number of graves found.

When the commission attempted to look into the question of missing Indigenous children, the Conservative government at the time turned down its request for money to finance searches. Now, several federal governments have offered to fund searches after the Kamloops discovery. On Tuesday, the government announced that it would provide just under 4.9 million Canadian dollars (about $3.9 million) to Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan to search for graves. The provincial government previously committed 2 million Canadian dollars ($1.6 million).

In a statement, Scott Moe, the premier of Saskatchewan, predicted that remains of more children would be found elsewhere. “Sadly, other Saskatchewan First Nations will experience the same shock and despair as the search for graves continues,” he wrote.

Like Kamloops, the Marieval school, which opened in 1899, was operated for most of its history by the Roman Catholic Church for the government of Canada. A marked cemetery still exists on the grounds of the school, which closed in 1997 and was subsequently demolished. The commission, relying on testimony from former students and archival materials, listed the Marieval school as a likely site for unmarked graves.

The commission called for a papal apology for the role of the church, which operated about 70 percent of the schools. (The rest were run by Protestant denominations.) But despite a personal appeal from Mr. Trudeau to the Vatican, Pope Francis has still not taken that step. By contrast, the leadership of the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, apologized for its role in running schools in 1986.

Former students of the Saskatchewan residential schools were particularly active in litigation against the government, resulting in financial settlements and the establishment of the commission, which heard testimony from more than 6,700 witnesses over six years.

Since the Kamloops announcement, Chief Cameron said, he has been traveling around the province, where farming and mining are major industries, looking at former school sites.

“You can see with your plain eye the indent of the ground where these bodies are to be found,” he said of some locations. “These children are sitting there, waiting to be found.”

Research was contributed by Vjosa Isai.

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