“Our hearts are heavy today. It’s unimaginable. Michael Starr, leader of an Aboriginal community in western Canada, struggles to find the right words. Unmarked graves and a child’s bone were found near a former Canadian Aboriginal boarding school on Thursday. For a year and a half, more than 1,300 children’s graves have been found near these facilities where Indigenous children have been forcibly enrolled, sending a shockwave across the country and a national awareness of the dark colonial past.
In Lebret, in the province of Saskatchewan, a radar has made it possible to discover nearly “2,000 suspicious areas” that need to be the subject of a thorough search, the Star Blanket Cree community said Thursday. An exact quantification of the number of graves is still impossible before further investigation, because not every “zone” is necessarily synonymous with anonymous burial, said Sheldon Poitras, who conducted the investigation. However, a fragment of the jawbone of an approximately 125-year-old child was also discovered, providing “material evidence for the existence of an unmarked burial,” noted Sheldon Poitras.
A “cultural genocide”
The search areas near this boarding school, which was administered by the Catholic Church and was open until 1998, were selected on the advice of former students of the boarding school. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the announcement “difficult” and acknowledged that “the work has only just begun” and pledged state support at every step.
For Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, “the discovery of the bones of a very young child on the grounds of Lebret Residential School is a tragic reminder of Canada’s painful history and the heinous acts committed in the boarding schools”.
Between the late 1800s and the 1990s, around 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly enrolled in 139 boarding schools across the country, where they were cut off from family, language and culture. Thousands never came back. A national commission of inquiry in 2015 described this system as “cultural genocide”.