LESTOCK, Sask. — A First Nation held a ceremony Tuesday at the site of the last standing residential school in its original form in Saskatchewan.
Elders and members of Muskowekwan First Nation placed 35 children’s moccasins and shoes to honour those who disappeared from the Muscowequan Indian Residential School.
The prayer vigil also honoured 215 children whose remains were recently discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
"We have to come together in support of Kamloops," said Saskatchewan Lt-Gov. Russ Merasty to those gathered at the vigil in Lestock, northeast of Regina.
"And it’s amazing your commitment to try and resolve that, to come to terms with what the real numbers are, identify the remains and in many cases repatriate those remains. There is lots of work ahead for all communities and governments.
"So today we remember particularly the children in Kamloops, we mourn with their families and communities, but I know that extends here and elsewhere."
For Merasty, honouring the children whose bodies were found in the mass burial site in Kamloops, and those who are yet to be found, will not end with vigils and memorials.
"We honour the children by committing to change," he said. "(And) every person in Saskatchewan, every citizen across this country, has a role to play in terms of how we come out of this."
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) says unmarked, unidentified graves were discovered on the site of the Muscowequan Indian Residential School during water line construction in the early 1990s. The FSIN represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
In 2018 and 2019, in collaboration with the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan and with the use of ground-penetration radar, the First Nation found at least 35 unmarked graves on the site.
Officials say that they expect to find more with further research. FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron expects that work to resume very soon.
"The work is going to happen on the radar ground searches. It is going to happen," he said. "It’s going to work. We hope to get it this week, but if not, early next week.
"We have the support from the provincial government (and) federal government. We have the support from our survivors and our chiefs and councils. We have support from our families to get this work done, but we have a lot of work to do."
The school opened in the 1880s and closed in 1997.
"I would say there's up to 95 per cent of our families, if not 100 per cent, that have been affected by this (residential school)," said Muskowekwan Councillor Cynthia Desjarlais.
"(And) the outcome has been reflected in our justice systems, in our incarcerations, the hospitals and, lastly, our cemetery shows all the people that have been affected by the school and by intergenerational traumas."
At the vigil, Roland Desjarlais shared stories from his family's experiences of residential schools, and what that has meant throughout his life.
"My family who came here, their family were fluent Cree and fluent Saulteaux," he said. "And when my mom and dad had left, they were actually so traumatized that they were taught not to teach their children languages.
"So today, I’m 71 years old and I know very little of my own language. And the problem with that is I have children and I have grandchildren and I have great-grandchildren, and I am not going to be able to teach them absolutely nothing."
Along with searching for more unmarked graves and returning the bodies to their families and communities, the First Nation is now working on building a family wellness centre near the site of the former school.
"We're doing a family wellness centre to reflect what has happened in these schools and to bring families together where they were torn apart from their homes," said Cynthia Desjarlais. "So we’re looking at doing a family-oriented centre where you would bring mom, dad, the children and bring healing together to our First Nations.
"It has been a long time coming."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2021.
— By Julia Peterson in Saskatoon