Sask. First Nation set to examine residential school gravesite with radar this summer

Chief Cadmus Delorme, of the Cowessess First Nation, says the bodies that are buried in unmarked graves at these sites across Canada are the ancestors and family members of those living in First Nation communities and in order for reconciliation to happen, those families need to heal and have their loved ones located.

Chief of the Cowessess First Nation says locating and designating of unmarked burial sites needed for healing

Hundreds of shoes and stuffed animals were left on the steps of the Saskatchewan legislature this weekend in honour of 215 children whose bodies were found in an unmarked burial site in Kamploops, B.C., earlier this week, on May 30, 2021 in Regina. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

A Saskatchewan First Nation is preparing to locate the final resting place of their ancestors using ground-penetrating radar and band leadership say the effort is an important one for the community. 

Last week, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced that an unmarked burial site at the Kamloops Residential School containing the bodies of 215 children had been discovered, spurring sadness and anger with Canada's long-living colonial roots.

Chief Cadmus Delorme, of the Cowessess First Nation, says every community has its stories about the horrors that took place at Canada's residential schools.  This includes Marieval Indian Residential School which operated in the area where Cowessess is now located from 1899 to 1997, with the First Nation taking over the school's grave site from the Catholic church in the 1970s.

Speaking on the same day hundreds of children's shoes were placed at the Saskatchewan Legislature in memory of the children, Delorme explained bodies buried in unmarked graves at these sites across Canada are the ancestors and family members of those living in First Nation communities.

He says in order for reconciliation to happen, those families need to heal and have their loved ones located. 

"In the coming years, this is going to be the heartfelt thing when it comes to reconciliation and this is the truth," he said. "So Cowessess, we're playing our part. We're doing this to make sure that we will never forget the ones that have gone before us."

Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme says his community is preparing to use ground-penetrating radar to locate the unmarked remains of bodies buried in a grave site for the Marieval Indian Residential School. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Chief Delorme pointed out that Sunday was actually "Flower Day" in the community, which is an opportunity to go and pay respects to those in graves at the site that are marked. However, he says while these types of practices offer some peace, there is a need to find all of those resting at the site.

"Those unmarked graves now have a purpose, to be marked, to be respected and to be given their proper name so that we can have a place to go and give our condolences and to help us heal, because those are our relations," he said.

Currently, only one-third of the graves at the site are marked.

On Sunday, Premier Scott Moe called for flags across the province to be lowered in honour the 215 children who were found in Kamloops, and Delorme said the recognition, while a small step, is a step in the right direction.

With the discovery of the unmarked burial site in Kamloops, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) called for further exploration of the province's residential school sites, calling for federal and provincial parties to take swift action, as the "whole world is watching."

"We know that thousands of First Nations children did not make it home and were buried without any markers or outcry from the public," said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron in a news release.

"We will not allow Government to continue to ignore these lost children. We must reconcile and reclaim the mass grave sites of our children from across Saskatchewan, within our Treaty Territories, in order to mourn and move forward."

Cameron called on families with information about ancestors lost to residential schools to come forward, saying they're already in the process of securing ground-radar expert and equipment to conduct the searches.

Delorme says the upcoming project is getting underway with support from the federal government and Saskatchewan Polytechnic, and that band leadership would be willing to help any other community in Saskatchewan that wants to undergo the process. 

"We look forward to doing this to help in our healing journey and maybe it will even help others as well," he said, noted the project started with an official blessing at the site on Sunday.

The Cowessess First Nation is located roughly 80 kilometres west of the Manitoba border in southern Saskatchewan. 

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