‘Canada’s responsibility to bear’: PM on unmarked graves found near former Sask. residential school

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that the hurt and trauma being felt by Indigenous people as a result of the Cowessess First Nation announcing the discovery of an estimated 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan is “Canada’s responsibility to bear.”

In a statement, Trudeau said that his heart is broken over this finding and promised federal funding and resources will continue to be provided to “bring these terrible wrongs to light.”

“While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory,” Trudeau said.

“The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy. They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country. And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also spoke about the findings in Saskatchewan, saying that these institutions were “designed to kill Indigenous people,” and the federal government needs to do more than offer condolences, and implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls for actions, as well as stop the fight against Indigenous people in court.

“When I think about the school that I went to— the grade school I went to in Windsor— there are no burial sites on schools. That is not a normal thing,” Singh said.

The flags on federal buildings across the country remain at half-mast, a move made after the remains of 215 children were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. last month.

The Cowessess First Nation began radar scanning of the school grounds and surrounding area on June 1, following the Kamloops discovery. Other communities are also embarking on similar efforts.

“I’m worried that we might become desensitized when we see additional discoveries and we stop reeling from the impact, we have to realize these are little babies… These are children that were stolen from their homes, and then they were killed in these institutions, and that was the plan,” Singh said.

In a statement, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called the news “heartbreaking” and said his party recognizes the “deep sorrow and mourning that all Indigenous people and survivors of residential schools are experiencing at this time.” He revived his call for the Liberals to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action that directly relate to missing children before Canada Day, which he said Wednesday shouldn’t be cancelled, despite calls for it to be spent mourning and reflecting.

Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation emphasized during a news conference on Thursday that the findings were not from a mass grave but unmarked graves where headstones had been removed. The ground penetrating radar used to search the grounds marked 751 hits, but Delorme said there is a 10 to 15 per cent margin of error so the final figure could vary slightly.

The federal government has committed $27 million to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools. 

More than 145 residential schools operated in Canada, with the last closing in the late 1990s. The federal government has estimated 150,000 First Nation, Metis, and Inuit students attended these institutions.

“There will be hundreds more unmarked graves and burial sites located across our First Nations lands at the sites of former Indian Residential Schools,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said in statement. “There are thousands of families across our Treaty territories that have been waiting for their children to come home.”

With files from CTV News’ Brooke Taylor

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line is: 1 (800) 721-0066.

A 24-hour crisis line for residential school survivors is: 1 (866) 925-4419 if you require further emotional support or assistance.

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