751 lights illuminate unmarked graves at vigil to honour those buried on Cowessess First Nation

A councillor with the Cowessess First Nation says Saturday's vigil is important for community members as they work to heal, but also for those in the surrounding communities, as it’s not only Cowessess First Nation members who are believed to be buried at the site.

'They were unknown this whole time, but now they're being acknowledged,' says Cowessess councillor

A large group of people gathered on the Cowessess First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan on Saturday night to honour those who were buried in what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. (Olivier Rouquairol Jodouin/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Hundreds of individual lights were placed Saturday night on the site of a former residential school in Cowessess First Nation, to honour those buried in what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves at the site.

Earlier this week, band leadership with the Cowessess First Nation said ground-penetrating radar searches of the former Marieval Residential School site had discovered the unmarked graves, spurring anger and sadness across the country and around the globe.

A gravesite vigil took place in the community at 7:30 CST Saturday night, starting with a ceremonial smudge and prayer.

Then, at 7:51 p.m. CST, a moment of silence was observed for those in the unmarked graves, followed by speakers and a viewing of the 751 individual solar lights placed at the site.

"These practices, these protocols from birth to death are all important in Indigenous country," said Barry Kennedy, a survivor of the school who was taken from his family at the Carry the Kettle First Nation, before the vigil.

"So to honour all these former students, these gravesites, with all the traditional protocols, I commend Cowessess First Nation. I support and I stand with them." 

Kennedy says it's believed many buried at the site are those who were forced to attend the school, and Saturday's ceremony — hosted by the Cowessess Youth Council and the Chief Red Bear Children's Lodge — offers important recognition both for survivors and for those who died.

'What does truth mean to you?'

Kennedy, who now lives in Yorkton, Sask., said support from non-Indigenous community members after the news of the unmarked graves has been important, as it shows Indigenous people are not standing alone.

However, he's still skeptical of politicians from outside the community who have expressed solidarity.

"It's such a sense of relief that now we're not fighting this alone, that we're not still suffering alone, but when it comes to the politicians, I'm always suspect," he said. "Are they just doing this for votes?"

Community members and others who gathered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School put down 751 solar lamps to mark each of the unmarked graves where remains were located by radar technology. (Olivier Rouquairol Jodouin/CBC)

Kennedy pointed to the fact the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, published more than five years ago, detailed the horrors and abuses suffered by those forced to attend the schools.

To those who are only now stepping forward to show support, "I would ask them: What does truth mean to you? What does reconciliation mean to you?" Kennedy said.

"It's something we all have to ask ourselves," he said, noting the reports of the mass burial sites in Saskatchewan and B.C. bring to light a truth that was already well-known by Indigenous community members and leaders. 

WATCH | Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme on how his community is dealing with the discovery of unmarked graves:

Cowessess First Nation chief on ‘heartbreaking’ discovery of unmarked graves

3 months ago
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation talks to Ian Hanomansing about how the community is grappling with the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near a Saskatchewan residential school and the historic racism Indigenous people face. 6:42

Jonathan Z. Lerat, a councillor with Cowessess First Nation, said Saturday's vigil would be important for community members as they work to heal, and also for those in the surrounding communities.

"We have loved ones [buried] here from the neighbouring First Nations, from the [rural municipality], from the towns, from the beachfront. So we have a lot of visitors coming to pay their respects," he said.

Lerat also said the community will be burning a four-day fire for those in the unmarked graves, to help guide them home. 

He said he's heard from numerous community members who want to make sure these burial sites are examined thoroughly, with "clear and concise" examinations to determine who is buried there, where they came from and what type of burial rites were offered. 

Lerat hopes support and resources are deployed to the community to help those who are still affected both by the recent discoveries and the lasting effect of the forced assimilation institutions, as some elders in the community are still not able to talk about their experiences.

He thinks the discovery on Cowessess will help the rest of the world understand the scope of suffering inflicted through the schools.

"It's heartwarming to me, because they were unknown this whole time, but now they're being acknowledged," he said. 

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.