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Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan puts names to 300 of 751 unmarked graves

Chief Cadmus Delorme said the First Nation has identified about 300 unmarked graves. Not all were believed to belong to children. Catholic Church parishioners are thought to have been buried there, as well as members of neighbouring communities.

Nation worked with historical records from the Roman Catholic Church, RCMP and federal government

A dancer performs at a powwow during a Reconciliation Day event in Cowessess First Nation on Thursday. In June, the First Nation announced it had used ground-penetrating radar to discover as many as 751 graves near the school site. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Carol Lavallee spent Thursday afternoon at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan listening to members of Cowessess First Nation sing, dance and pray.

More than 60 years ago, she would have been inside the now-demolished school, looking out a window and dreaming of freedom.

Lavallee was forced to attend the school when she was six years old, and stayed there from 1957 to 1967.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark Canada's first Truth and Reconciliation Day, she said she had to come to terms with returning to the spot where the school once stood.

"Land is sacred to Indigenous Peoples. I couldn't say this land was sacred because I suffered here," Lavallee said. "Horrible things happened to me here."

She said the Catholic Church drilled the Ten Commandments into the students.

Carol Lavallee attended the Marieval Indian Residential School between 1957 and 1967. Above, Lavallee speaks at a Reconciliation Day event at Cowessess First Nation on Thursday. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

"Thou shall not steal — and here they stole everything from us. Our spirits, our parents. Everything that was precious to us they stole from us," said Lavallee.

In June, the First Nation announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former school, which operated from 1899 to 1997.

Chief Cadmus Delorme said the First Nation has since identified about 300 unmarked graves.

Not all were believed to belong to children. Catholic Church parishioners are thought to have been buried there, as well as members of neighbouring communities.

'It's validating'

The First Nation worked with historical records from the Roman Catholic Church, the RCMP and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to put names to the unmarked graves.

They also relied on people's oral stories.

"It's progress. It's relief. It's validating," said Delorme.

But the healing journey doesn't stop there,he added.

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"To know that there were once windows behind us, where our family members looked out and they should not be able to sing, dance, or pray — we're doing that."

Lavallee said she is happy the residential school is gone and spends her time helping other survivors.

She said she follows the seven Indigenous teachings of respect, humility, love, truth, honesty, wisdom and courage.

She is not a survivor, Lavallee said, but a victor.

"Because they didn't kill enough in me. I still love. I still help. I still share."

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