The discovery comes just weeks after more than 200 children were found buried at a different former boarding school in Canada.
For decades, a terrible question has haunted Indigenous people in Canada. Where did the children go? Thousands were forced to enroll at religious schools in the 20th century. And thousands never came home. Now, the discovery of as many as 751 bodies at a former school has confirmed what many families long feared.
Using ground-penetrating radar, the Cowessess First Nation came across hundreds of bodies — mainly children — on the grounds of the since-demolished Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations.
“We are proud people, the only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous.”
The heartbreaking find at Marieval Indian Residential School comes on the heels of another shocking discovery — the bodies of 251 children at Kamloops Indian Residential School, which were found by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation in May 2021
Both have underlined the horrific legacy of Indigenous schools in Canada. From 1883 to 1996, Canadian officials forcibly removed nearly 150,000 Indigenous children from their families. They sent them to one of more than 100 schools, where the children faced systemic abuse and were banned from speaking their native languages.
“They were putting us down as a people, so we learned how to not like who we were and that has gone on and on and it’s still going on,” said Cowessess First Nation Elder and Knowledge Keeper Florence Sparvier, whose parents were threatened with jail if they didn’t send their children to Marieval.
“We learned, and they pounded it into us, and really they were very mean, when I say pounding, I mean pounding.”
After the discovery at Kamloops, the Cowessess First Nation wanted to conduct a search of their own. They used ground-penetrating radar technology to scour the grounds of Marieval Indian Residential School, which operated from 1899 to 1997. And within days, they came across bodies.
“This is not a mass gravesite. These are unmarked graves,” said Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme. The Cowessess suspect that the Roman Catholic Church, which had operated Marieval and many other Indigenous schools, removed any gravestones.
For decades, former students have told stories of the horrors they witnessed at Indigenous schools. Some have claimed that babies born to girls impregnated by priests were incinerated. Others describe an atmosphere of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.
“They made us believe we didn’t have souls,” said Sparvier.
In recent years, Canada has tried to make amends. The country offered a formal apology in 2008 for “cultural genocide.” And a 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report estimated that some 4,000 children may have died in Indigenous schools, from neglect, diseases, and accidents.
However, Murray Sinclair, an Indigenous judge who led the commission, believes that that number is likely much higher. He now estimates that “well beyond 10,000” Indigenous children died.
In light of such discoveries, Indigenous people want an official apology from the Catholic Church. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, has also encouraged the Church to apologize.
But although an apology would be welcome, it would not erase the horror of what happened in Canada. For decades, children — some as young as three years old — died at Indigenous schools. They never came home, and their parents never knew what had happened to them.
Plus, the discovery of bodies at Marieval and Kamloops suggests that other schools hid similar horrors.
“You can see with your plain eye the indent of the ground where these bodies are to be found,” said Cameron, who has visited multiple school sites since the discovery of bodies at Kamloops. “These children are sitting there, waiting to be found.”
He’s determined to bring their story — and the story of Indigenous people in Canada — to light.
“The world is watching Canada as we unearth the findings of genocide,” Cameron said. “We had concentration camps here, we had them here in Canada, in Saskatchewan.”
“Canada will be known as a nation who tried to exterminate the First Nations — now we have evidence.”
After reading about the discovery of 751 bodies at an Indigenous school in Canada, learn about the shocking Bath school disaster. Or, look through these photos of Inuit people before and after Canada upended their way of life.