Friday, May 24, 2024

Keeseekoose First Nation: 54 Unmarked Graves Discovered at Former Residential School Sites

A ground penetrating radar search conducted at former residential school sites around Keeseekoose First Nation in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan found 54 potential gravesites.

“Forty-two were found on the Fort Pelly site, and 12 were found at St. Philips,” said Ted Quewezance, former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation and project manager for the search. Quewezance himself is a residential school survivor who spoke out about the sexual abuse he suffered in school.

These two residential schools operated from 1895 to 1969. Fort Pelly school was founded in 1895 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) says the school’s principal was replaced in 1911 for drunkenness and abuse. The school closed in 1913, and a day school was opened on the premises.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate also operated the St. Philips residential school from 1928 to 1969. The NCTR website says that in the 1960s, sexual and physical abuse was a widespread problem at the school, and a supervisor was dismissed for the mistreatment of students.

The NCTR’s website has records of two students who died at the Fort Pelly school and two students who died at the St. Philips school.

At a press conference, Keeseekoose Chief Lee Kitchimonia said that this discovery of 54 possible unmarked graves had opened the door for more questions. “Are there more graves out there?”

“It’s going to be a very tough time in our community, knowing we have unmarked graves in our community, where we walk every day, drive every day. We passed by them, never realizing that there were graves there,” said Kitchimonia. He said that he didn’t know if they would ever get closure. “We’re going to pray for closure. I pray for closure every day, but I don’t know if I’ll ever see it in my lifetime.”

Addressing the press conference virtually, Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said, “I want to acknowledge the survivors who are joining in person, and all of the survivors who are watching online, all of the intergenerational trauma survivors as well, of which I am one. Both of my parents and many of my older siblings attended what I call the institutions of assimilation and genocide.” She quoted the scholar Dr. Pam Toulouse of Sagamok First Nation, who said that 100 percent of First Nations people suffer from intergenerational trauma. “And it’s a result of colonialism. However, the majority comes from these institutions. And I want to say that there are children who never made it home. Particularly the 54 little ones that we are holding space for today, they are among the thousands of our little ones who didn’t make it home.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “The news from Keeseekoose First Nation, that more than 50 possible unmarked graves were found on the grounds of former residential schools, is profoundly heartbreaking. To the members of the community: We are here for you.

There are no words that can convey the pain, trauma, and many other emotions that are felt in moments like this. It is by telling the truth that we will honour and lift up the memory of those who never came home from these so-called schools.”

At the press conference, Quewezance criticized Trudeau for the lack of action following the discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites. He said that Trudeau’s apology to survivors “didn’t come from the heart, it’s just politics,” and that he didn’t offer any next steps to take action on this.

Last month, Williams Lake First Nation announced the discovery of 93 unmarked graves on the grounds of St Joseph Mission, a former residential school.

On May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of a mass grave with the remains of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops, British Columbia, at the site of what used to be the largest Indigenous residential school. Earlier that month, the remains of 751 bodies, mostly of children, were discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School site in Saskatchewan, where the Cowessess First Nation is located. Also, in the same month, the Lower Kootenay Band said that it found the remains of 182 people near the grounds of the former St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School near Cranbrook in BC.

St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School near Cranbrook in BC. (Courtesy NCTR)

In December 2021, the NCTR and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate announced collaboration that will grant the NCTR full access to critical residential school records in the Oblate archive in Rome, Italy. The Oblates operated 48 residential schools in Canada, including the Marieval Indian Residential School in Cowessess First Nation and Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

Between 1883 and 1996, over 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly sent to residential schools, many of which were operated by the Roman Catholic Church. A large number of Indigenous children never returned to their homes.

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, p. 1)

The Canadian Reconciliation Barometer Project, which measures progress toward Reconciliation, has just released its first report. The report says that, although people in Canada agree that Residential Schools and governments have harmed Indigenous peoples, there’s a worrisome gap in understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

If you or someone you know needs support related to these discoveries, you can contact the national Indian Residential School Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) 24 hours a day.

Author profile
Poonam Sharma

Poonam is a multi-media journalist, and Founder and Editor of Global Strat View. She was the Managing Editor of India America Today (IAT) for seven years, and launched its print edition in 2019 with IAT's Founder and Editor, the late Tejinder Singh.

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