Saskatoon·Video

'It's time these secrets are revealed,' Sask. First Nations say at launch of graves search

Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs said it welcomed the public to its search for unmarked graves at the site of Saskatchewan's Delmas Indian Residential School because "it's time that these secrets are revealed."

Indigenous group invites public to watch because 'it's time that these secrets are revealed'

Jenny Spyglass, 79, at right, attended Delmas Indian Residential School as a child and walked its grounds on Saturday. (Stefan Nenson/Radio-Canada)

Warning: This story contains distressing details. 

Jenny Spyglass was almost four years old in 1944 when she was separated from her mother and forced to attend Delmas Indian Residential School in northwest Saskatchewan. 

"This is where they took my culture away," said Spyglass. "They took that love away from my mom."

Standing by a large green field as cars zoomed by on Highway 16 toward Lloydminster, Sask., the 79-year-old elder was among a group of about 50 people gathered Saturday at the site, located in the tiny hamlet of Delmas, Sask., as a search began for unmarked graves.

"This is where my little brother passed away," Spyglass continued, going on to describe being locked in a basement for the mere act of hugging her siblings.

"We were a happy family until they took me away."

WATCH | "I put it away from my mind," says residential school survivor Jenny Spyglass:

Jenny Spyglass speaks at the site of the former residential school at Delmas

2 months ago
1:53
79-year-old Delmas Indian Residential School Survivor speaks at site being searched for unmarked graves 1:53

Opened in 1901 by the Roman Catholic Church, the Delmas residential school was overcrowded and students suffered and often died there from a wide range of illnesses, such as typhoid, peritonitis, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, jaundice and pneumonia, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

The school burned down in 1948 — eight years after an inspector warned it was a fire hazard, according to the centre. 

The school, also known as Thunderchild Indian Residential School, operated from 1901 to 1948 near Delmas, Sask. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan)

'It's time that these secrets are revealed'

Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs (BATC), which represents seven First Nations in the region, launched its search for unmarked graves at the Demlas school and cemetery site on Saturday.  

Other Saskatchewan First Nations had already begun that grim task.

Not long after B.C.'s Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced its preliminary finding of unmarked burial sites at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site, Saskatchewan's Muskowekwan First Nation said it had found the remains of 35 previously unidentified students. More work is planned at the Muscowequan residential school site this summer.  

Cowessess First Nation then announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan — the largest such discovery to date. 

But in a first for Saskatchewan, BATC welcomed the wider public to Delmas to witness the launch of its search in real time.

After a smudging by Alvin Baptise — who grasped the same eagle feather he held throughout the 2018 trial that examined the fatal shooting of his nephew Colten Boushie — visitors and the media were allowed to enter the grounds and watch the search efforts closely.

Workers from an engineering firm wore orange T-shirts, in commemoration of students forced to attend residential schools, as they zigzagged across the land with a ground-penetrating radar device — a contraption with three mountain bike tires and a computer monitor at its head. 

Some First Nations members even took the reins of the device at times. 

"Did the first row this morning," Baptise wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday.

Elder Alvin Baptiste operates the ground-penetrating radar device. (Alvin Baptiste/Facebook)

Karen Whitecalf, who is organizing the search efforts, said BATC wants to turn a new page in Canada's residential school history by being completely open and transparent about its work.

"We made this public because we're tired of keeping secrets," she said. "They kept us a secret for so long. It's time that these secrets are revealed and be shared with everybody."

The results from the search of the Delmas site and other grounds — including Battleford Industrial School, Canada's first industrial residential school — will be revealed to the public as soon as possible, she said. 

WATCH | "Our culture does not exhume remains," says search organizer Karen Whitecalf:

Organizer Karen Whitecalf on search

2 months ago
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Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs in Saskatchewan wanted to make Delmas residential school grave site search public because 'it's time that these secrets be revealed.' 11:03

Elder Noel Moosuk, from Red Pheasant Cree Nation, was one of the first people to arrive at the staging grounds by the Delmas Community Hall.

"It's kind of hard for me," he said of his visit. Both of Moosuk's parents went to the Delmas residential school.

"Their parents were told if they didn't let their children go, come to this residential school, the parents would go to jail or get fined," Moosuk said. "There's still stories that we have to tell."

 

Elder Mary Bernadette Fineday, of Sweetgrass First Nation, was also present for the search, watching from the side in a camping chair.

While she did not attend Delmas school, her father did. She said he complained he didn't learn anything there and was made to tend cattle.

"They were put to work with nothing, nothing else," she said. 

Elder Mary Bernadette Fineday's father and cousins attended the school. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Fineday would visit her cousins at the school. 

"I used to see girls," she said. "They used to walk two by two, with short hair. Really short. Navy blue or black skirts, white blouses, white socks."

Fineday's late husband stayed at the school one night, she said. 

"They put a gown on him, and a nun told him to kneel down and pray, but he didn't understand. He said, 'I talked back to her in Cree. And then she slapped me.' He said, 'I ran away. I don't know whose shoes I got.'"

'Just be thankful you have parents'

One of the younger attendees on Saturday was Storm Night, of Saulteaux First Nation. Her grandparents attended Delmas school. Saturday was Night's first time visiting the site. 

"It's a really intense feeling," she said. "I've cried a lot already. It hits home."

The trauma from the school has been passed down, she said.

"My parents went to day school," she said. "There's addiction in my family. I grew up in foster care my whole life. It's just really hard to comprehend what has happened and to understand why what happened in my family happened."

Storm Night's grandparents attended the school. Saturday was her first time visiting the site. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Night and others said the search also offers an opportunity for closure and healing. 

Chief Wayne Semaganis, of Little Pine Cree Nation, joined others in calling on Pope Francis to visit Saskatchewan to make reparations for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools. 

"If truly he is a man of God, he will not need to be asked to come here to come and say, 'I'm sorry,'" Semaganis said.  

Jenny Spyglass, whose childhood was abruptly turned upside down all those decades ago, had a message for young people.

"Just be thankful you have parents, you have loved ones," she said. "Be good to your parents, to your elders, when you see them. Hug them."


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.


Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

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