At least 751 unmarked graves were found in a former boarding school for Indigenous children in Canada, officials said Thursday.
The brutal discovery took place on the grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, a Catholic school that opened in 1899 and closed in 1997.
“This was a crime against humanity, an attack on the indigenous people … The only crime we committed as children was being born indigenous,” said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations in a press conference.
Less than a month before Thursday’s announcement, a mass grave containing the bodies of 215 Indigenous children was found in another school of its kind, the now defunct Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Both institutions were part of a dark chapter in Canadian history in which indigenous children were taken out of their families and sent to state and church-run schools to strip them of their culture and force them to assimilate. Schools were teeming with physical and sexual abuse and thousands of children died, but the exact numbers and causes of death are unlikely to be fully known.
Cameron said many more of these former schools are being investigated and they expect many more graves to be found. “We’re going to find more bodies, and we’re not going to stop until we’ve found all of our children,” he said.
“Canada has exposed the results of the genocide,” said Cameron. “We had concentration camps here … They were called Indian Residential Schools. Canada will be known as a nation that tried to exterminate the First Nations, and now we have evidence.”
Cowesss First Nation chief Cadmus Delorme said the graves were once marked, but the Roman Catholic Church, which ran the school, is believed to have removed the headstones in the 1960s. Delorme asked the Pope to apologize for the Church’s role in running boarding schools.
“The Pope must apologize for what happened,” said Delorme. “An apology is one of many stages in the healing process.”
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Church’s responsibility for the deaths of indigenous children. “As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed in the position the Catholic Church has taken now and in recent years,” said Trudeau.
Days after Trudeau’s remarks, the Pope expressed his grief over the discovery of the mass grave, but did not apologize. “I join the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada to express my closeness to the Canadian people who have been traumatized by the shocking news,” Francis said in public statements.
On Thursday, Trudeau said he was “terribly sad” that the bodies of more indigenous children had been found.
“No child should ever have been removed from their families and communities and robbed of their language, culture and identity. No child should have spent their precious youth in terrible loneliness and abuse, ”Trudeau said. “No child should have spent their last moments in a place where they lived in fear never to see their loved ones again. And no family should be deprived of the laughter and joy of their children at play and the pride in seeing them grow in their community. “
If assistance is required, the Indian Residential School Survivors Crisis Line’s 24 hour survivor line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.