Ottawa announces $700K in funding to support Cowessess First Nation's efforts at former residential school

Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation welcomed the funding, saying it will assist not just his people but Canada as well.

Funding will support Cowessess First Nation's efforts to put a name to every one of the 751 unmarked graves

Dozens of people attended a vigil on Cowessess First Nation on Saturday, June 26, 2021 to honour 751 unmarked graves that were discovered using radar technology near the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. (Mickey Djruic/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

The federal government has announced it will provide more than $700,000 in funding to Cowessess First Nation. 

Officials with the government and Cowessess say the funding will go toward the efforts to research, mark and commemorate the 751 unmarked graves at the nearby site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. 

Cowessess First Nation is located about 140 kilometres east of Regina and has served as one of the central locations in Canada's still ongoing process of reckoning with the history of residential schools. 

Search efforts and research remain ongoing, according to Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation. 

"The end goal is to have a name put to every unmarked grave and to make an area of healing, of truth and a place where people can go to to learn the truth about what happened at the Marieval Indian Residential School," he told CBC News in an interview. 

Delorme said the First Nation's validation teams have just wrapped up and confirmed the location of each of the 751 unmarked graves at the former residential school. 

But the painstaking research to understand who is buried there is expected to continue for years to come. 

The $703,230 that will be distributed over the next three years is expected to help fund those efforts. It's a dollar figure that was proposed in a budget put forward by Cowessess First Nation and accepted by the Government of Canada.

Marieval Indian Residential School

Cowessess was not the first residential school to locate unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school but the 751 unmarked graves is among the largest figures. 

Not all graves are believed to belong to children that were forced to attend the school during the nearly 100 years it operated, from 1899 to 1997.

Catholic Church parishioners are thought to have been buried there, as well as members of neighbouring communities.

LISTEN| Pope's visit should include apology and compensation, says Chief of Cowesses First Nation

When Pope Francis comes to Canada to meet with Indigenous people, he should be ready to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church's role in residential schools, and properly compensate survivors, says Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme.

That's why the funding is so important, according to Delorme.

"This project, this validation, this research is truth and this country cannot move to reconciliation until we first accept and acknowledge the truth," he said. 

"This First Nation is one first nation in this country and is going to help this entire country focus on truth, but also prepare for amazing reconciliation."

All of the research and efforts around the Marieval Indian Residential School will be led by Cowessess First Nation and it will be done at their own pace, according to the federal government. 

"Canadians are beginning to understand and recognize the tragic legacy these schools have left," said Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, in a news release. "Our hearts are with Cowessess First Nation as they search for their missing children and continue on their healing journey."

Along with covering the costs of research, the funding is expected to help purchase ground penetrating radar equipment that will be used by Cowessess in the future. 

It's Cadmus' hope that by learning to use the equipment themselves, they'll be able to assist other First Nations who want to search sites of former residential schools. 

The funds will allow for the creation of commemorative markers and a possible monument. 

It will also fund mental and emotional support for the survivors of the Marieval Indian Residential School and the family members of those who never came home. 

"We're not asking for pity. We're asking that you let us find the truth. Let's share the truth. Let's cry together. Let's let's mourn together,"  said Delorme. 

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.

With files from The Canadian Press