Less than a month after the tragic discovery of 215 bodies in Kamloops, British Columbia, 751 unmarked graves were unearthed near another former residential school in Regina, Saskatchewan.
The Chiefs of the Cowessess First Nation and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) announced the discovery, which they described as the most significant to date, at a press conference on Thursday morning.
The graves — discovered near the Marieval Indian Residential School — hold the remains of 751 former students. Although the exact age of the bodies found is unknown, they were likely to be both adults and children who attended the school when it operated between 1899 and 1997, Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme said.
The institution is located roughly two hours east of Regina. It was sponsored by the federal government and run by the Catholic Church from the 1970s.
Accounts from Indigenous communities had long pointed to the existence of a cemetery near the site of the former school, prompting the FSIN to start investigating it earlier this month.
Similar to Kamloops, ground-penetrating radar technology ultimately uncovered evidence of the graves, but Delorme said the headstone markers had long been removed — likely intentionally.
"This is not a mass gravesite. These are unmarked graves," Delorme said, noting that thorough investigations will continue to be carried out in the coming months and that Indigenous leaders and local communities would work together to identify and name the graves.
The Saskatchewan government has contributed $2 million to carry out additional searches across the province. Meanwhile, the federal government also committed $4.88 million to support the initiative.
But the trauma stemming from the discovery has had a significant impact on Indigenous communities, FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said. He described it as a "crime against humanity" and "an assault on First Nations people."
Delorme echoed the sentiment: "We are not asking for pity but we are asking for understanding. We need time to heal and this country must stand by us."
In a statement issued Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government of Canada was committed to working with Indigenous and communities to uncover the truth about residential schools and bury the painful legacy they left behind.
"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," Trudeau said.
"The hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada's responsibility to bear, and the government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need 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."
While the Pope recognized the sorrow and suffering caused to Canadian Indigenous children and families, the Catholic Church has yet to issue a formal apology about the role it played in the residential school system. One of Canada's most devastating legacies, the system was part of an effort to assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian culture.
Nearly 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children were removed from their families and placed in the schools under a policy that dates back to Confederation. The last school closed in 1996.