Cowessess First Nation chief leads through reckoning to reach healing

Chief Cadmus Delorme is leading Cowessess First Nation through a challenging time of reckoning and healing, all while navigating a path to self-governance.

The first nation is located nearly 200 kilometres east of Regina, in southern Saskatchewan.

In June, Delorme announced to Canada — and the world — the discovery of at least 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School site, on Cowessess land.

“The truth is validation to Indigenous people of the pain, the frustration, the continuous fight it feels with colonization,” Delorme said.

“We have one of two options right now: to address the truth, accept the truth, then move to reconciliation, or be ignorant to the reality and make our children figure it out. And I am one to not wait for our children to figure it out.”

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Read more: Saskatchewan First Nations leaders call for papal apology on Canadian soil

To help with the difficult work ahead, the first nation hired a grandmother from Cowessess, Barb Lavallee, to lead the gravesite rejuvenation.

“We cut it into two approaches: one of them is research and one of them is technical. The technical is verifying the 751 hits, or unmarked graves, as we say,” said Delorme, adding the other focus is research and putting names to the unmarked graves.

“Splitting it into two has made the process a lot smoother, and it has allowed us to build a team that is here for the long haul.”

Read more: Cowessess First Nation says it has identified 300 of 751 unmarked graves

As of September 2021, the team had confirmed at least 300 names.

“I was raised by residential school survivors. My grandparents and great-grandparents are residential school survivors. And I want to show all of them that reconciliation can happen on their kinship bloodline,” Delorme said.

“What they experienced is real. But hope is in the future because many of their children and grandchildren today are being examples of what reconciliation can really look like.”

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Reconciliation through self-governance

A little more than two weeks after the tragic discoveries, Cowessess made history: officially becoming the first Indigenous nation to receive full coast-to-coast jurisdiction over its children in care, anywhere in Canada.

On July 6, 2021, a historic signing took place in Cowessess between Chief Delorme, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.

Read more: ‘Reconciliation is possible’: Cowessess First Nation Chief on child welfare agreement

“The end goal of self-governance right now, in this timeline with Cowessess First Nation, is that we will have our political sovereignty. And we have our own constitution, we have our own election act, we’re about to bring up more major legislation,” Delorme said.

The first nation initially passed child welfare legislation in March 2020, under Canada’s landmark Bill C-92, which empowers Indigenous communities to reclaim jurisdiction.

Read more: Cowessess First Nation becomes 1st to control its child welfare system. Here’s how it works

Delorme also noted self-governance isn’t possible without “cultural rejuvenation” — taking pride in Indigenous dance, song, values and teachings.

“And then thirdly, economic self-sustainability. Cowessess wants to be a self-sustaining nation,” he said, adding he understands there will always be a fiduciary obligation between the Crown and Cowessess.

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“That will always continue. But Cowessess never asked to be dependent on the government and we will not allow that in our end goal of self-governance.”

When asked about the legacy he wants to leave one day, the chief acknowledged how his own children’s futures, and the work he’s doing now, are intertwined.

Read more: ‘Not something you can get over’: Survivors, youth reflect on lasting residential school impacts

“I would like to leave my kids knowing that their father is making a difference, so when they get to my age they can continue the progress,” Delorme said.

“And to this country: we inherited this and let’s not shy away … let’s put our shield down. Have uncomfortable conversations and put action plans to those uncomfortable conversations so that our children don’t have to focus on this. They can focus on real progress.”

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