WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Religious and Indigenous leaders are grappling with how to move forward after the preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a former residential school site in Saskatchewan.
The discovery was announced by the Cowessess First Nation on Thursday, less than a month after the remains of an estimated 215 children were detected in preliminary findings at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
The announcement has renewed conversations around how to deal with the legacy of Canada’s residential school system and how to commemorate Canada Day on July 1.
“I’m just emotionally exhausted,” Betty Nippi-Albright, a Saskatchewan MLA and survivor of residential schools, told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton in an interview that aired Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.
Nippi-Albright spoke about how she and other residential school survivors knew there would soon be more announcements after the first discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops.
“It wasn’t a surprise for us,” she said, describing how the the announcements had brought back the trauma of her own experience of going to a residential school.
“We’re triggered. We’re hurting. It brings up hurt that we’ve been dealing with for for a long, long time.”
Nippi-Albright called for governments and Canadians to commit to real action on reconciliation through programs developed with Indigenous groups and building trust with Indigenous people. The first step in dealing with the legacy of residential schools needs to be the disclosure of documents related to their operation, she said.
“If you’ve had provincially run schools release those documents, take ownership for your part in operating those residential schools, they could stop the suffering.”
That sentiment was echoed by Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme, who spoke with Barton on Sunday, a day after his community held a vigil to honour those buried in unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
Along with disclosure of documents from Catholic Church organizations that operated the school — something Delorme said has not yet occurred but has been promised — the Cowessess chief said a criminal investigation is a possibility.
He said discussion is taking place surrounding why headstones were removed from the graves but that it likely happened around 1960, with oversight by a Catholic priest.
“When [there is] pain and suffering, someone needs to be held accountable,” Delorme said.
Ongoing role of the church
The role of the Roman Catholic Church in running some of Canada’s residential schools has been a major focus of the past month, with repeated calls for an official apology from Pope Francis.
That hasn’t yet happened, but many bishops in Canada have made their own apologies and are pushing for a similar action from the Pope, recognizing the desire for accountability expressed by Indigenous communities.
“I think I got my head around it fairly early,” Archbishop of Regina Don Bolen said, adding that a planned meeting between a delegation of Indigenous people and the Pope at the Vatican sometime this year is a “powerful next step.”
In the past week, four churches in British Columbia have burned to the ground and others have been vandalized. Bolen said his own church has received hostile anonymous phone calls but that he understands the frustration and anger.
“And in some sense, it’s a way of holding the pain and a way of accompanying the pain of this present moment. But there is a path of dialogue and engagement, and there are many, many in the church who are ready for that engagement,” he said.
“Chief Cadmus is such an embodiment of a readiness for engagement, and our relationship is really built around the calls to action [of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission], which is exceedingly helpful.”
Debate over Canada Day
The two preliminary discoveries of unmarked graves have also sparked an ongoing debate over how to commemorate Canada Day.
Several jurisdictions have cancelled or modified planned celebrations, including Victoria.
“While reconciliation is obviously a national conversation, every city in this country is located on different Indigenous land. And for the past four years, we’ve been building very close relationships with the Lekwungen people. And this is our response to their grief this year,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told Barton on Sunday.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has been among critics of those cancelling Canada Day, arguing that it should be used as an opportunity to reflect on Canada’s past but also to celebrate its successes.
“We are not a perfect country. No country is. There is no place on this planet whose history can withstand close scrutiny. But there is a difference between acknowledging where we’ve fallen short and always tearing the country down,” O’Toole said in a speech to his caucus on Wednesday.
Cowessess chief Delorme said he would not dictate to Canadians how to spend Canada Day but suggested they take time to reflect on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples by reading the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and learning how Canadians have “inherited” the legacy of residential schools.
“No Indigenous person in this country is looking for pity. We’re just looking to stop fighting just to be an Indian in this country and stand beside us, let us heal, let us develop and let us coincide as to how treaty was supposed to be at the beginning.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.