Hundreds of backpacks laid at Sask. Legislature to mark discovery of unmarked graves

Organizer Prairie Crowe hopes the 751 backpacks will provide Saskatchewan residents with an understanding of how many unmarked graves have been found near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

Organizer plans to leave one for each unmarked grave near former residential school

Approximately 150 backpacks on the steps of the Saskatchewan legislature on June 28, 2021. Organizers hope to gather enough to display 751 backpacks, one for each of the unmarked graves discovered at the former Marieval Indian Residential School, by Canada Day. (Submitted by Prairie Crowe)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Organizer Prairie Crowe hopes that a display of 751 backpacks at the Saskatchewan Legislature on Canada Day will provide the province with a stark illustration of the unmarked graves recently found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. 

"I think that number, 751, just sticks with a lot of people," she told CBC News on Monday. 

"[It's] just to symbolize them and show the number … just to have a visual impact." 

Community advocate Prairie Crowe plans to leave hundreds of backpacks at the Saskatchewan Legislature on Canada Day, a memorial to those in the unmarked graves recently found at the former site of the Marieval Indian Residential School. (Submitted by Prairie Crowe)

Crowe is a community advocate and activist who grew up on the Piapot First Nation. She's soliciting donations of used or new backpacks and other school supplies for the memorial. 

Crowe's efforts were sparked by the recent findings at or near the sites of former residential schools. 

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In May the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia announced the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Last week, the Cowessess First Nation announced preliminary results of ground-penetrating radar searches at the site of the former Marieval school, which operated from 1899 to 1997, approximately 140 kilometres east of Regina. 

It said 751 unmarked graves had been discovered.

Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, part of a structured plan that the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission described as "a far-reaching system by which the federal government sought to regulate Aboriginal life." 

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The backpacks are not Crowe's first attempt to highlight the recent discoveries. She previously laid hundreds of shoes on the legislature's steps in the wake of the discovery in Kamloops. 

After the Marieval discovery, people asked if she was planning another action. 

Through donations, Crowe had been able to collect approximately 150 backpacks as of Monday morning.

With messages still coming in asking how they can help, she's expecting to receive many more. 

"I don't know if we'll reach our goal, but we're definitely working on it," Crowe said. 

By Monday evening many of the already donated backpacks had been placed on the steps of the legislature. 

She's encouraging anyone planning to donate to place the bags alongside those already there. 

The goal is to donate the backpacks and supplies to community organizations, which will distribute them to families and children who need them on reserves or in Regina for the upcoming school year. 

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.