Most say Saskatchewan's residential school death toll is far higher than the 566 confirmed cases

News that a survey indicates the remains of about 215 children are at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. has renewed questions about the fate of thousands of other children across Canada who died at residential schools. Many of those are in Saskatchewan.

All residential school graves must be identified, according to First Nations in Saskatchewan

Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation Coun. Warren Seesequasis stands at the gravesite of a relative. He and others say it's vital to identify and honour every student who died attending Canada's residential schools. (Jason Warick/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Warren Seesequasis walks across the grass field where St. Michael's Indian Residential School once stood, then crosses a dirt road and unties the baling twine on the cemetery gates.

He stops at a large white cross. Below it, a small plaque lists the names of two uncles.

"We know where our family is buried. I am thankful for that," Seesequasis said.

The councillor in central Saskatchewan for the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation says many community members have been shaken by the recent news out of B.C. 

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds conducted by a "specialist in ground-penetrating radar" at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School indicated the remains of about 215 children were on site. 

"If that was my own children, I'd never be balanced," Seesequasis said. "It would be long-term hurt. I think I'd feel something missing inside myself."

The Kamloops discovery has renewed questions about the fate of thousands of children who died at residential schools across the country. Many of those are in Saskatchewan.

The Muskowekwan First Nation alone announced this week it had identified the remains of 35 previously unidentified students. There are questions at nearly every one of the 20 residential schools in Saskatchewan identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, from Battleford to Lebret.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations is calling on the federal government to fund further searches with ground-penetrating radar of all sites.

"Many of our survivors are still healing and still grieving, and we hope to help in some way in finding closure for them," federation Chief Bobby Cameron said this week.

St. Michael's Indian Residential School, near Duck Lake, Sask., operated for more than 100 years and was among the last in Canada to close in 1996. (Submitted by Warren Seesequasis)

Officially, 566 children in Saskatchewan died while at residential schools, according to the authors of the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. They note these confirmed cases form only a "partial record" and the actual death count is far higher.

But even the confirmed numbers reveal a death rate that is greater than the general school-aged population over that time period.

'There are many more here'

The remains of 191 of those Saskatchewan children remain unidentified. Some were buried in unmarked graves, while the location of others is unknown.

The major cause of death listed is tuberculosis, exacerbated by cramped, unsanitary living conditions, malnutrition and other deprivations. An Indian agent reported that half of all children sent to St. Michael's in 1910 had died of TB.

Causes of death are omitted from half of the records. Officially, only six children died of suicide in the 100-year history of the schools, a number many say is off by orders of magnitude. The official record states only 40 children died in school fires, when 19 boys died in a single 1927 fire at the school in Beauval, Sask.

Children's shoes, stuffed animals and other objects were placed this week on the field where Saskatchewan's St. Michael's Indian Residential School once stood. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

"Kamloops is not an anomaly. There are many more here [in Saskatchewan]," Little Pine First Nation Chief Wayne Semaganis said.

"For so many of them, their parents were never told. We weren't seen as human enough."

The TRC's report states the high death rates, the poor record keeping and the reluctance to send students' remains to their home communities "was largely a function of the government's determination to keep residential school costs to a minimum."

At Beardy's, the current problem isn't just unmarked graves. Seesequasis said some St. Michael's students who went missing aren't even listed in the school records. Researchers and family members are searching for answers.

"One big problem was the constant misspelling of our name, or officials put down [the] wrong school or even province," Seesequasis said.

Earlier this week at the former St. Michael's school grounds, cars and trucks full of local residents came and went, leaving children's shoes or a stuffed animal at the growing memorial.

Former student Richard Ananas said he and his wife, Madeline, who have been married 55 years, felt drawn to the site after hearing the news about Kamloops.

Richard Ananas says he and his wife, Madeline, were drawn back to the grounds of St. Michael's Indian Residential School this week after hearing about the news in B.C. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"It was pretty lonely at this place," Ananas said. "Everybody got a number. My number is 648 and I still remember it. I'm 76 years old and I still remember because it's just like a person going to jail."

This weekend, Beardy's members will host an annual ceremony to remember all their dead loved ones. Seesequasis said this year's ceremony will have special meaning. He said even those who are not identified will be remembered and loved.

"I know they're all in a good place," Seesequasis said. "We don't believe in heaven and hell. It's just a better place."

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.