Survivors face reopened trauma, but work to identify residential school graves must continue, say chiefs
'We are trying to make sure that this doesn't trigger in a negative way': Cowessess First Nation Chief
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Efforts must continue to name the children in unmarked graves near a former Saskatchewan residential school, even if not all remains can be identified, says Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme.
"Realistically, will every unmarked grave have a name? Probably not," said Delorme.
"But at least now there will be a marker there, something to indicate, you know, a body lies here," he told The Current's guest host Mark Kelley.
"That is the end goal. We are going to get there one day at a time."
In late June, the Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which operated from 1899 to 1997.
Delorme said Cowessess First Nation is now working with local church officials on identification, as well as elders and knowledge keepers who have their own records and memories.
"I have had elders that said, 'My sister is over here somewhere,'" he said.
Survivor wants site 'left undisturbed'
Several First Nations have conducted searches of former residential schools in recent months, after a preliminary report from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in May indicated unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
In an update Thursday, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed that approximately 200 potential burial sites have been identified using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), but that number could rise significantly as only one hectare of a 65-hectare area has been surveyed.
- Do you have information about residential schools? Email your tips to WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.
Speaking to The Current after the update, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said there is more work to do, and she has been trying to prepare her community for it.
"Further investigation is definitely needed to ensure that we locate all the missing children in our caretakership," she told Kelley.
Survivor Evelyn Camille, who was forced to attend the institution in Kamloops for 10 years, said she would prefer to see the burial site "left undisturbed."
"Yes, there may have to be some studies to be done — what good are those studies going to do for us, for an individual, for me?" she told the crowd at Thursday's update.
"It's going to tell me that, yes, they were murdered," she said.
"Is that going to make me feel better? I don't think so."
Casimir said she acknowledges survivors' pain "and the trauma that has been reopened."
But she added that she is listening to the concerns and perspectives of many survivors from different communities forced to send children to the Kamloops school.
"We want to make sure that we bring all the survivors together to, you know, share how they would like to see the care and respect and the steps moving forward," she told Kelley.
"For those that didn't return home, again it's about that utmost respect and dignity."
'This is trauma, enduring'
Delorme said the Cowessess First Nation is diverse, and as such there have been varying reactions and perspectives around the identification of the burial sites.
"How to get to the end goal is agreeing to disagree."
"I tell other chiefs ... just remember that, you know, this is trauma, enduring," he said.
"We are trying to make sure that this doesn't trigger in a negative way, and that's what we're dealing with."
Casimir said that Thursday's update was a "heavy truth" to share publicly, and she was glad to have the support of her community and leadership on the day.
She said non-First Nations people have also felt the grief and loss of the burial sites, and she wants all Canadians to "share in that truth."
"We can't change what happened in the past. We have to find a path moving forward, but we also have to look at uncovering those truths," she said.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest 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.
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.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler and Joana Draghici.
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