WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A year has passed since Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme announced to Canada that 751 unmarked graves had been found at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

Media outlets from across the globe covered the story, featuring the First Nation in documentaries about the treatment of Indigenous communities and the legacy of residential schools.

Delorme said that the unmarked graves started the First Nation on a path toward healing as the wider world has been forced to accept a truth that the community already knew.

Oral history within the community said children and adults had been buried there.

An orange sign with the words "Cowessess, Every Child Matters. First Nation #73" sit in a field. Stuffed animals rest at the base of the sign, which is flanked by two potted plants and a chair with an orange shirt on it.
A sign with the phrase ‘Every Child Matters’ marks where 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

“It’s a validation. Validation of the pain, the frustration, the anger, the tiredness of just trying to remain Indigenous in a country that is still somewhat oppressive,” he said in an interview this week. 

The last year has been a tough journey for his nation, the chief said. 

‘We have to show action’

The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997. 

For nearly a century, the Catholic Church operated the school, stripping children of their Indigenous heritage and identity while robbing them of their language and ability to pass knowledge through their family — something that Delorme calls the breaking of vertical lineage. 

The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area where Cowessess is now located, about 140 kilometres east of Regina. (CBC)

While he did not attend a residential school, his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother did.

In those generations, they were unable to receive traditional teachings. Instead they went into what he calls “survival mode” as they suffered abuse. 

“I’m so honoured to share that my five-year-old daughter and my mom are really close again and so my vertical lineage is back,” Delorme said. 

While residential schools may have ended in Canada, their legacy and generational trauma has not. 

That’s why it is important for Canadians to accept the truth of what happened. Only then can reconciliation begin, he said.

“We as a country, we inherited this. Nobody today created residential schools, [the] Indian Act, [the] Sixties Scoop. So we don’t have to feel bad, but we have to show action,” Delorme said.

“We have to show our residential school survivors in this country that we are still watching. That as Canadians, we know the truth now and we need to learn more and we need to truly implement reconciliation.”

‘They didn’t have that opportunity’ 

The discovery of the unmarked graves at Marieval affected not just members of Cowessess First Nation but the survivors of residential schools across the province.

Charlotte Baldhead is a member of the One Arrow First Nation.

Charlotte Baldhead spoke with The Canadian News just moments after receiving her high school diploma on Thursday, more than 30 years after leaving St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

She’s a survivor of the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, located near Duck Lake, Sask., and was the fifth generation of her family to attend a residential school.

Baldhead says the past year was emotional as unmarked graves were detected at former residential schools across Canada. 

On Thursday, Baldhead received her GED, or the equivalent of a high school diploma. 

“I’m thinking back about my grandparents when they were in residential school. They didn’t have that opportunity,” she said. 

“So I feel like I’m doing a great honour to them, for getting me to this part of my life.” 

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At Cowessess, the efforts to get answers around the 751 unmarked graves continues. 

Consultation with Cowessess elders has resulted in the decision that there will be no excavation of any graves. 

Delorme has always been consistent in saying the site served as a gravesite for the community and that some of the graves are likely non-Indigenous. 

With data collection and ground-penetrating radar mostly complete, efforts have turned to collecting oral history and documented evidence to identify who might be buried there.

That has involved collecting records including at Saint Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg as well from the archives of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated Marieval. 

“We’re probably about a year and a half away from understanding the names from all the records,” Delorme said. 

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On the heels of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for not following up on an invite to spend the day with a First Nation in B.C. — Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme discusses reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and answers questions from callers.

‘Lots of community work’

The desire to gather information and find answers is not just focused on the former Marieval Residential School.

First Nations across Canada, which have always known about the history of residential schools, are now attempting to find sites where members have attended and may be buried.

Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says getting answers isn’t simple. 

“There’s a lot that goes into that work. It’s not just taking out a ground-penetrating radar machine. There’s a lot of community work that needs to be done,” she said.

Kisha Supernant is the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (Omayra Issa/CBC)

Supernant has worked with multiple First Nations over the past year who would like to search the sites of former residential schools for unmarked graves. 

There is a desire to get answers, but a lack of co-ordination and funding that would help make the process easier, she said.

“Communities are, in some cases, scrambling to put together teams to be able to help with this work. But not all [First Nations] have equal capacity to do that, and they need help building that capacity and ensuring that their communities are able to carry out this work,” she said. 

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Co-ordination at a national level is required, with the recent federal appointment of a special interlocutor for unmarked graves being an example of what is necessary.

Supernant stressed that it is not just technology that needs to be funded. The process of healing must be supported she said. 

Work across Canada is just beginning and the journey toward finding the truth can be long.

‘Tough story to comprehend’

For some members of Cowessess, healing means justice. 

Delorme says Marieval survivors have expressed a desire to see charges laid in connection with the unmarked graves. However, it’s not clear what the future holds. 

Grave markers at the site were removed and bulldozed by a priest in the 1960s.

This week Delorme said that their original desire to lay charges under the provincial Cemeteries Act, which makes it a crime to remove grave markers, is unlikely because of the vast period of time since the incident and the death of the man that ordered the removal. 

Delorme says the past year has been a painful journey for members of Cowessess First Nation. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Delorme says they continue to treat the site as a “crime scene.”

“We are just collecting data to see if anything will be validated as we move forward. As of today, we don’t have much of validation for criminal activity. It’s just telling the true story and it is a tough story to comprehend.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


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