The discovery of
751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School is
the latest in Canadas grim tally.
Deedee Lerat attended
the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada,
where 751 unmarked graves were recently discovered. "I
would be too scared to even ask to pee," she says, "because
you didn't want to draw attention to yourself." The grass
in her portrait is from where the school once stood.
Its been 51 years since Deedee Lerat, 60, attended the Marieval
Indian Residential School on her home reservation of Cowessess in
Saskatchewan, Canada. But the memories of the abuses the Salteaux
Cree woman endured there still haunt her. There was so much
fear, she says.
The fear came rushing back when the Cowessess First Nation announced
on June 23 that it had discovered 751 unmarked graves at the site
of the school. I would like answers, says Lerat. Why
werent they reported? Why wasnt this stopped?
She was five years old when she was forced to attend Marieval. That
couldve been me.
The village of Lebret,
Saskatchewan was home to the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential
School, one of many sites of severe physical, sexual, and
psychological abuse inflicted on young First Nations, Metis,
and Inuit children who were taken from their communities during
the residential school era. While most of the original school
structures have been demolished, one building remains visible
on the far right side of the photo.
The discovery at Marieval is the latest in a grim tally of newly
revealed burial sites at Canadas Indian Residential Schools.
In late May, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation
near Kamloops, British Columbia, said theyd located the remains
of 215 children using ground-penetrating radar at the former Kamloops
Indian Residential School. In the weeks following, several other
First Nations communities made similar discoveries.
The news that hundreds of unmarked graves have been found
in Cowessess First Nation is absolutely tragic, but not surprising,
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations,
wrote in a post on Twitter. More than 150,000 Indigenous children
attended Canadas residential schools, which were created in
the 1880s to assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant culture.
The result amounted to cultural
genocide, as documented by the National Truth and Reconciliation
Commission (TRC), which issued its final report in 2015.
A statue showing Father
Joseph Hugonard, founder of the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential
School, was taken down on June 21, 2021. The statue depicts
two young Indigenous children wearing Indigenous clothing
and sporting long hairtwo things that would have been
forbidden while they were students at Qu'Appelle.
Although the last federally run school closed in 1996, the painful
legacy of the schools continues today, with generations of Canadas
First Nations still wrestling with their experiences and those of
their elders. We didnt know how to cope so we internalized
all that trauma and passed it on, former Marieval student
Marcel Ellery told National Geographic Society Explorer Daniella
Zalcman, whose photography project Signs of Your Identity
explores the effects of this forced assimilation.
Attendance at the state schools, the majority of which were run
by the Catholic Church as well as other Christian churches, was
compulsory. Children as young as three were removed from their parents
by police and taken to residential buildings to live in unsanitary
conditions. Most lived there until they were 18.
Rampant neglect and abuse were common. I was so scared all
the time. I remember thinking, don't be noticed, because
I saw what they did to the kids that were noticed, said Lerat,
who suffered physical, emotional, and verbal abuse at Marieval.
Whoever was killing them thought they were nothing
just little savages.
Marcel Ellery attended
Marieval Indian Residential School from 1987 to 1990. He ran
away 27 times, scaling fences like the one in his portrait,
but he was always caught. When I got out, I turned to
booze because of the abuse," he says. "Ending up
in jail was easy, because Id already been there.
Selina Brittain attended
the Marieval Indian Residential School from 1954 to 1962.
I believe that they thought they were teaching us,"
she says. "I believe that they thought that assimilating
us into their way of life would help us. But they changed
us into something we werentand there was nothing
wrong with our way of life before. Thats what they still
dont understand. The background of her photo shows
the Qu'appelle River, which bordered the school.
Students' long hair was cut, and they were disciplined for speaking
their mother tongue. Cree is my identity, Ellery told
Zalcman. How was I supposed to stop speaking it?
Some survivors were given numbers in place of their names. Six
of the schools conducted nutritional
experiments on Indigenous children in the 1940s; some died of
starvation. The notorious
St. Annes residential school in northern Ontario built
an electric chair to punish Indigenous students.
Sometimes children ran away but very few made it home. Ellery tried
to escape 27 times but was always caught. Others died
in the extremities of the wilderness, often frozen or drowned.
The Gordon Indian Residential
School was the last federally run school to close, in 1996.
A memorial marks where the school once stood in Punnichy,
Most original residential
school buildings have been destroyed but the Muskowekwan Indian
Residential School still stands, although it is largely in
The TRC has identified over 4,100
children who died of disease or accident at the schools but
admits that the number of undocumented deaths may never be known.
After numerous survivors testified to the commission about the disappearance
of classmates, being forced to dig graves or witnessing murder and
coverups, the TRC petitioned the federal government for funds to
investigate the whereabouts of lost children. The request was turned
down, and First Nations began funding their own searches for their
missing children, which resulted in the recent discoveries.
The wounds from more than a century of harm are still open. At
Catholic churches located on reserves in British Colombias
interior have been burned to the ground in the last few weeks. Several
major cities have cancelled planned Canada Day celebrations on July
1 in solidarity with mourning Indigenous communities.
The cemetery is all that
remains of the Regina Indian Industrial School.
Janet Dufour attended
the Marieval Indian Residential School from 1952 to 1960.
A priest molested me because I was ugly and shy and
I think he picked the most vulnerable of us," she says.
"To this day, I dont like fall because it brings
back that ugly feeling, that terror of having to go back.
Railroad tracks lie in the background of her portrait because
she dreamed of running away to the city.
"The hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada's responsibility
to bear," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a recent statement.
The Canadian government apologized to survivors in 2008 and 28,000
victims have received reparations. In 2015 the federal government
hired 17 investigative firms to track down people accused of abuse
at the schools and found
5,315 alleged perpetrators.
Yet survivors and their families still bear much of the pain of
their experiences on their own. Lerat, a mother of six, has struggled
with sexual exploitation, homelessness, addictions, and trauma.
Over the years shes attended traditional ceremonies, therapy,
church, and healing circles in her quest to recover. But 10 years
ago, her oldest son died of a prescription drug overdose, and she
relapsed after eight years of being sober. Since then, its
been a battle to cope. I still struggle with drugs,
she says. But I just gotta learn to walk with the grief and
not in the grief.
A circle of Dene elders
say a prayer together in Beauval, Saskatchewan, on the morning
of one of the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission listening
sessions in Canada. Survivors gathered for several days to
share stories and testimonies of their time as students at
Beauval Indian Residential School, which operated from 1895
The news of the childrens remains makes it even harder, but
she finds solace in the thought that the lost childrens spirits
have finally been released.
My daughter was crying, she says. I told her,
Dont cry. Theyre set free. Theyre not stuck