Over 750 individual lights were illuminated on the site of a former residential school in Cowessess First Nation, Sask. on Saturday to honour those buried in unmarked graves.
Three days after the revelation that 751 bodies were buried on the grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School in unmarked graves, found after radar scanning of the school grounds and surrounding areas, elders built a lone tipi protecting a sacred fire to honour the dead.
The gravesite vigil, which began at 7:30 CST on Saturday night, started with a ceremonial smudge and prayer. A moment of silence was then observed as hundreds of lights donated by local businesses illuminated the unmarked graves.
“As soon as we heard they wanted to do the solar light vigil, I went to my owner and he promptly agreed to provide the lights, at no cost to me. He phoned the local Canadian Tire, they emptied their shelves within hours,” Kevin Friesen, a Cowessess First Nation member who works in sales at Mann Northway GM, told CTV National News.
Mann Northway GM donated 800 solar lights for the vigil, where a light was placed at each flag to mark the spot where remains were found.
“It was good to see the group come together, young old the elders everybody working as a team,” Friesen said.
Chief Cadmus Delorme has emphasized that the findings were not from a mass grave, but unmarked graves where headstones had been removed by representatives of the Catholic Church.
As efforts to scan the grounds continue, community members have many questions of just who exactly is buried there. However, at this stage of the investigation, officials say they are unable to identify the remains in the unmarked graves, which may belong to both adults and children who attended or worked at the residential school.
The discovery, which comes less than a month after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has sparked continued anguish amongst the Indigenous community, prompting calls for support and the release of all documents related to residential schools.
Because Canada is finally learning what horrible experiences we went through in residential schools, my dream now is to see the government help us find ways to get our healing centres in place. To reteach us how to be parents, to reteach us how to deal with our mental anguish from suffering for so many years, to reteach us our healthy ways, Carol Lavallee, a survivor of the Marieval Indian Residential School, told CTV National News.
We have to heal now. Canada please acknowledge the atrocities you did to us.
But the discovery has impacted all generations of the Cowessess First Nation, even those who were born long after the residential school system was shuttered.
“I have a lot of family members who went to residential schools and its just hard to take in when you have a lot of people and a lot of connections,” 16-year-old Rylie Delorme, part of the Cowessess Community Youth Council, told CTV National News.
On Sunday, the community will have a feast with the spirits before they are finally able to go home to the spirit world.
“I’m super glad we found you because like I said, this is not something to be swept under the carpet. You guys were real people, you all had you hearts, you all had families,” Delorme said at the vigil, speaking to the unmarked graves.
On Saturday, the Catholic religious order that operated residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia said it will disclose all historical documents in its possession related to the schools where the unmarked graves were found.
“We remain deeply sorry for our involvement in residential schools and the harms they brought to Indigenous peoples and communities,” the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate said in a statement.
Jonathan Lerat, who helped to organize Saturdays vigil in Cowessess, says that although the last three days have been difficult, locating the unmarked graves is a step forward.
Its a painful heartwarming. Its a happy day for me when we finally know about the unmarked graves and the loves ones that are buried there, he said.
– With files from The Canadian Press and CTV Regina