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

COWESSESS FIRST NATION — 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.

“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 it had used ground-penetrating radar to discover as many as 751 graves near the school site.

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.

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.

“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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

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