Muskowekwan First Nation recognizes 35 unmarked graves at residential school site

The Muskowekwan First Nation has laid out 35 pairs of children’s moccasins and shoes to honour each unmarked gravesite located at the site of its former residential school.

The First Nation said the shoes will also honour the 215 children whose remains were found at a Kamloops residential school site last week.

The last residential school in Saskatchewan to close its doors, called Muscowequan Indian Residential School, was located on Muskowekwan First Nation. It opened in 1886 and closed in 1997.

On Tuesday, dozens of people gathered at the school site to pay tribute to residential school attendees and survivors across the country.

Roland Desjarlais attended the Muscowequan Indian Residential School for nine years. He was taken from his family when we was only seven.

“I thought I was only going to come here to visit because I live so close, but I couldn’t go home,” Desjarlais said. “When you’re just a little child, you’re crying day after day after day.”

His family lived just metres away from the school.

“The thing about me being here is that I could see my mother doing laundry outside,” he said. “Being seven or eight years old and not being able to go see her, to go join her – how come I can’t just go home? You absolutely do not understand any part of that.”

He remembers playing sports during his days at the school, which he said he enjoyed. But he also remembers physical abuse when he was caught trying to learn his language from other students.

Desjarlais said his father spoke Cree. He never got to learn much of the language because of his time at the residential school. Now he wishes he could pass it on to his children and grandchildren.

GROUND RADAR FINDINGS

In 2018 and 2019, the First Nation worked with the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Alberta to use ground-penetrating radar to find unmarked or unidentified graves of children who attended the school.

Through that process, along with water line construction done in the 1990’s, the First Nation has identified at least 35 graves. It said there are likely more still waiting to be found.

“Our elders have told us that there’s a lot of areas here that haven’t been explored and eventually we will do that,” Cynthia Desjarlais, a councillor on Muskowekwan First Nation, said at the ceremony on Tuesday.

She said the universities will come back to explore more of the land, but there have been delays due to funding and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and the Saskatchewan government are calling on the federal government to help fund radar ground searches at residential schools in Saskatchewan.

“Then we deal with the findings. Obviously closure and that healing journey would continue for so many families,” FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said.

Cameron said he’s proud of Saskatchewan for being one of the first regions to “hit the ground running” with organizing radar ground searching and to have the support of the premier.

“We met and discussed [on Monday] with three radar ground search companies who are ready to do the work,” Cameron said.

Cameron said he’s hopeful the process could start by next week.