'We need justice': Northerners call for action after Saskatchewan graves discovery

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq is among those in the North calling for apologies, accountability and 'meaningful, quality' reparations after a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near a former residential school in Saskatchewan.

'Our hearts and strength are with the Cowessess First Nation,' says Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq

'First Nations, Inuit and Métis need the truth. All of it,' Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said in a statement on Thursday. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Northern leaders and communities expressed their sadness and called for action Thursday after Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near a former residential school in Saskatchewan.

"Our hearts and strength are with the Cowessess First Nation and everyone affected by this discovery at the Marieval Indian Residential School," Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said in a statement released shortly after details of the discovery were made public.

"How many more residential school mass grave discoveries are Indigenous people expected to endure? It was already too much when our children were systemically stolen starting in 1883," he said.  

"First Nations, Inuit and Métis need the truth. All of it."

The discovery by Cowessess First Nation comes close to a month after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced preliminary findings showing what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of an estimated 215 children's remains near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. 

In the North, people have long called for investigations into unmarked graves, with suspected sites in Fort Resolution, Fort Providence and Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

It wasn't immediately clear whether all of the unmarked graves found by Cowessess First Nation were connected to the residential school, but Chief Cadmus Delorme said oral stories within his First Nation attested to both children and adults being buried near Marieval Indian Residential School.

'Justice for stolen children'

Savikataaq said apologies to the thousands of affected families and communities are needed from everyone ever involved. 

"We need justice. Real, absolute justice for stolen children and destroyed families," he said.

Savikataaq also called for accountability, reconciliation "on our terms and based on our values," and "meaningful, quality" reparations.

He said change can happen through the provision of equal opportunities for all Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

TRC called for registry for deceased children

Marie Wilson was a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and lives in Yellowknife.

"It is just incredible grief and sadness for the families and for these little children, for the loss of them, for the loss of potential to the communities and to our entire country," she said on CBC's Canada Tonight Thursday, reacting to the discovery in Saskatchewan. 

The TRC's final report said there are likely unidentified grave sites across the country, she said.

"We heard it over and over and over again from the thousands of residential school survivors who spoke to us throughout the land."

This is about something Canada has done and has allowed to have happen to its children.- Marie Wilson, commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The commission called for a national program so missing children could be found and properly honoured. It also called for a national registry so that once found, children could be "named and never forgotten," said Wilson, and so ceremonies could be carried out in nations across the country. 

Wilson said costs shouldn't factor into the search for more burial sites. 

"It has been very easy for us, in our years of working with elderly survivors, for us to forget as a country that we were always talking about children. They were children in the stories they told us about," she said. 

"This is about something Canada has done and has allowed to have happen to its children."

Truth and Reconciliation commissioner discusses newly discovered unmarked graves

3 months ago
Marie Wilson, who was part of the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the impact of residential schools, says the discovery of new unmarked graves in Saskatchewan is a gut punch but is not surprising given the commission called for investigations into grave sites at these schools years ago. 6:47

Flags at Yukon gov't buildings to be flown at half-mast

Flags at all Yukon government buildings will be flown at half-mast for nine days to "honour those who suffered trauma and harm along with their families and communities who are mourning," Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said on Thursday.

"We are devastated to learn of the discovery by the Cowessess First Nation. Our communities are still grieving from the discoveries in Kamloops and other sites in Canada and we know, with a heavy heart, that there will be more," he said in a statement.

"These painful discoveries must drive necessary conversations about Canada's dark history. More importantly, all Canadians must take action to address our past and foster reconciliation for a brighter future."

A vigil outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse earlier this month. Hundreds of pairs of childrens' shoes were left in front of the Catholic church in honour of what is believed to be the remains of 215 children discovered near a former residential school site in Kamloops B.C. (Philippe Morin/CBC) (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling support by calling 867-456-3838, said Silver in his statement.

The Village of Haines Junction, Yukon, announced on Facebook Thursday that it would also lower flags to half-mast for nine days at St. Elias Convention Centre.

Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon posted on Facebook Thursday morning that it would hold a sacred fire and smudge at Haa Shagóon Hídi at noon on Thursday to mourn and honour the lives of those buried in the unmarked graves discovered by Cowessess First Nation.

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

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.

The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.

In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason. 

In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.

With files from Bryan Eneas