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

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.”

In a subsequent interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller echoed that the government stands ready to provide the Cowessess First Nation whatever support it needs to navigate the investigative process.

“It could be national defence, transport and closing down airspace, depending how the situation evolves, or expertise that the federal government can bring to bear but it isn't our job to be the face of this but really to support those communities in that longer-term decision-making process,” he said.

Ottawa issued a notice to airmen to close off the airspace around the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., following the discovery of 215 unmarked graves there.

While Miller didn’t provide the exact number of communities seeking to utilize federal dollars to embark on burial searches, he said there is a “significant” number of groups with the intention to do so and that it is sure to grow.

Asked also whether there should be a specific federal point person to oversee the many investigations taking place to uncover remains, Miller reiterated that the government is following the lead of Indigenous groups.

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 discovery  at the former Kamloops school.

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.”

On CTV’s Power Play later in the day, Cameron had a stark message for the Catholic Church, which, despite overseeing the majority of residential schools in Canada, has not formally apologized for the damage it caused to Indigenous people.

“You must embark on a journey with our First Nations survivors and decedents and be part of the healing process. Come to our regions and pick one residential school site and apologize with sincerity and a pure heart, a kind heart,” he said.

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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