Warning: This story contains details of residential schools and the abuse that took place there.
COWESSESS FIRST NATION—Seated in the liquid shade of a maple tree on a deceptively sunny afternoon, Carol Lavallee points to where the landmarks stood when she attended Marieval Residential School six decades ago — the barn, the corral where the cows lived, the chicken coop.
Now the peaceful field she surveys boasts a couple of weather-worn buildings, a white Quonset hut and dozens upon dozens of small pink flags — each marking the presence of human remains buried in the earth below.
“My heart was horribly, horribly broken when I realized that our ancestors were all laying here without being recognized, without being memorialized in any way,” she says, sounding almost incredulous.
“We couldn’t honour them because we didn’t know they were here.”
For the second time in a month, the revelation that hundreds of unmarked graves have been found at a residential school has shocked much of the country, and the world. This time, it was Cowessess First Nation, a picturesque community of about 4,300 in southeastern Saskatchewan, that announced the discovery of as many as 751 unmarked graves.
The work continues to find out who these people were, and the First Nation has said they may include children and adults. But whoever they were, they were forgotten.
Of course, to those who attended any of the roughly 130 residential schools that once dotted this country, the idea that the violence, abuse and death that often happened within such walls is somehow new has only added another layer to their pain.
Many, like Lavallee, have been talking about this for years. But now, mainstream Canadians —which is to say, white Canadians — may finally be waking up.
In this corner of Western Canada, the corduroy green fields seem to go on forever, punctuated only by the occasional farmyard with its halo of trees to break the prairie wind. But when approaching Cowessess, the gravel road suddenly dips and curves as the ground opens up to reveal the Qu’Appelle Valley, a postcard-perfect setting long ago gouged out of the earth by melting glacial water.
The community has clusters of neat houses, a hockey rink, expansive powwow grounds and several large banks of solar panels as part of a community green energy project; all surrounded by gently curving hills. It’s a location her people were fortunate to get, Lavallee notes, if forced relocation can ever be described that way. When Treaty 4 was signed a century and a half ago, her people weren’t exactly given a menu of options.
There have long been graves here. A cluster of headstones by a distant road marks the places where, Lavallee says, mostly well-to-do members of the local parish were put to rest. Theirs are the sort of markers the average First Nations person could not have afforded.
But decades ago, graves marked more simply, often with crosses, reached almost to where she’s sitting this Friday, until a dispute ended in a number being removed. That section includes several of Lavallee’s siblings. She says she no longer knows where they were laid to rest, except for one brother, whose grave she finds by walking roughly seven steps from a nearby cross.
But the field beside it was believed to be just that — a field. Until a company was brought in to map the known graves that had been missing markers, and found a many more.
Lavallee started as a resident in the mid 1950s, when she was six. One year, she and her classmates were taken to school in a cattle truck, and she recalls her sister trying to keep her pressed to a wall to stop her tiny body from bouncing too high.
She remembers the food being very good — the school was tasked with teaching its charges how to farm, so at least vegetables were plentiful — and how she and her female classmates were all dressed alike, in blouses and skirts and boots to the ankle.
Those girls in their matching clothing found excuses to laugh and to support each other. There was one who particularly loved carrots, so all the other girls would pass her extra under the table, Lavallee recalls.
But she also remembers the abuse. She recalls how the nuns would stand by while priests led small girls away at night to a room under the stairs. She remembers how, when her smaller siblings joined her at school, she found it in herself to become a fighter, to protect them.
How does a small child fight an adult? With everything she has, Lavallee responds.
While centuries-old trade routes in northern Saskatchewan meant Indigenous groups there had been familiar with Europeans for generations, Indigenous leaders say the relationship here, in the southern part of the province, progressed much more abruptly, and arguably violently, thanks to a coming innovation — the railroad, built in the 1880s.
James Daschuk is the author of “Clearing the Plains,” a book in which he wades into a sea of historical records to painstakingly detail the way in which the Canadian government helped sow hunger and disease among First Nations people in an attempt to clear the prairie expanse for incoming settlers.
It was when the Indigenous populations in what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta approached their lowest that the architects of Canada’s residential schools gathered up those threads — of abuse and deprivation — and knitted them into the foundation of the dozens of schools that would stand for almost a century.
To him, it’s unfathomable that graves at residential schools were the result of natural causes, as has been argued by some naysayers.
His book notes reports that prior to colonization, prairie buffalo hunters, who feasted on the animals that once blanketed much of the plains, were among the tallest people on Earth. But discriminatory settler policy opened up a health gap between Indigenous and non in this country that has never been closed.
When it was published almost a decade ago, the book won numerous awards, including the governor general’s award for history, and regularly landed on must-read lists of Canadian history.
But for Daschuk, a gregarious university professor whose face lights up when he talks about his discussions with students, his book’s success also taught him a lesson he wasn’t expecting: the heft of his own white privilege.
He was nervous when he began writing the book — nervous to get it wrong. He’s clear about what he knows and what he doesn’t. He’s an authority on the colonial state, and not of Indigenous studies, he says.
Yet he was surprised the first time an Indigenous person thanked him for writing the book, for using his power as a white academic to tell the world what they already knew. Then it happened a few more times.
“That’s been another lesson for me. Because of my white privilege, I’ve got the veneer of impartiality,” he says. “Because, they’re like, ‘Jim, this is not your fight,’” he says.
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“But it should be all of our fights because, like, something screwed up here.”
The question now becomes, will the recent news change anything?
Sitting around a fire at the cabin at Lumsden Beach in Saskatchewan — itself a village founded because of a nearby church camp — Daschuk pauses before answering.
“You know how we’re trained in biology class, that evolution is, like, every day the thing gets a little more adapted to its environment?” Instead, Daschuk points to an American evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who theorized that many creatures stay pretty much the same, until, one day, a massive change happens.
“The idea is, rather than everyday evolution, what he said is, ‘No, there’s a shock.’ So the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? We’re here because the asteroid killed the dinosaurs,” he says.
“Had that teenager not filmed George Floyd’s death, the Washington Redskins would still be the Washington Redskins,” he adds.
“It takes a shock to change things.”
The first step, many say, is a full accounting of those who died at school. Many questions remain about the graves at Cowessess, but on Thursday as he told his community’s story to the world, Chief Cadmus Delorme said he was “optimistic” that the Catholic Church would co-operate and disclose any records related to Marieval and its associated cemetery.
“We have full faith that the Roman Catholic Church will release our records,” he said. “They have not told us, ‘No.’ We just don’t have them yet.”
The archdiocese of Regina said it had previously provided Cowessess archival death records that cover a period from 1885 to 1952.
Regina Archbishop Don Bolen said in a statement provided to the Star on Friday that it is his “desire” to make any documents available that could help in identifying unmarked graves, “and to assist in the healing process.”
But, since four residential schools within the archdiocese were operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, “we have very little in terms of school records.”
In a statement posted to their website, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 residential schools, including Marieval and Kamloops, repeated an apology for their involvement with the schools and said they were committed to disclosing “all historical documents maintained by us and in our possession, in accordance with all legislation, about our involvement.”
They said that since their formal apology in 1991 they have worked to make any documents available through partnerships with universities, archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“While some progress has been made, this disclosure is not complete, and has been complicated by issues of provincial and national privacy laws.
“We are not experts in the management and analysis of these historical documents or the complex privacy laws which apply. However, we must address these issues, as without a full review of the existing historical documentation from our order’s involvement, the truth of residential schools will not be fully known.”
They said they are “seeking guidance” from expert organization to see what can be released “within the law.”
On Friday, facing mounting calls for independent investigations into the deaths of children at residential schools, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged Canada would do “do what is necessary.”
Lavallee, meanwhile, finds hope in the fact that eyes are finally on what happened in those schools.
“I would want people to recognize and acknowledge that we were destroyed,” she says. “Every which way, we were destroyed.”
For her, change would mean the government committing to healing centres where First Nations people can finally find closure.
While residential school survivors are often portrayed as victims of tragic circumstances,which they were, with survival has come strength that too often goes unmentioned.
As a child, she says, she found resiliency in the love of her parents and siblings. When at home, they lived in what she describes as a “shack” — on the hillside property where she still lives today — but she never once felt cold or hungry, she says.
As an adult, she found herself drawn to a return to residential schools, and spent years as a social worker in schools that had since been taken over by First Nations. The return puzzled even herself, she says, until she was realized it was a chance to protect those children in a way that she hadn’t been able to protect herself.
In years of working in schools she never once punished anyone, and worked hard to encourage the students, she says. She beams when she recalls running into “her girls” and “her boys” — former students, now long grown.
For years, Lavallee suffered nightmares — mostly the sensation of choking — from her early abuse. But she says talking about her story, letting it out, has helped her find some peace.
“Everything is beautiful, so find that beauty in it,” she says. “If you can’t see it today, you might see it tomorrow.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
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