Work starts on locating unmarked burial sites at former residential schools in Saskatchewan

WATCH: First Nations leaders say they hope this is the start of a healing process as the federal government puts nearly $5 million toward research into unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Saskatchewan.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron calls it a positive step toward reconciliation.

Work is underway in Saskatchewan to locate and commemorate the unmarked burial sites of children who died while attending Indian Residential Schools.

The FSIN said Tuesday the federal government is providing $4.88 million in funding to help with their efforts.

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“There are hundreds of survivors and descendants that have provided testimony of classmates that did not return home from residential schools and sanitariums across the province,” Cameron said.

“It is a positive step towards healing and reconciliation for government to finally give these families and communities the closure they deserve and peace to the thousands of little souls in the unmarked graves surrounding these schools.”

The funding will go toward research, knowledge gathering and initial ceremonies related to the burial sites of children who never returned from residential schools to their Indigenous communities.

The minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, Carolyn Bennett, said the past few weeks have been a difficult time for Aboriginal communities.

She said the country must never forget those children lost due to “colonial policies.”

“Saskatchewan First Nations know best what they need and Canada will be there with the FSIN to support them in ways that are First Nation-led, community-based, survivor-centric and culturally-sensitive,” Bennett said.

“We are here to support survivors, families and communities with essential healing supports for those once again reliving the horrific tragedies of their experiences at residential schools.”

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Cameron said they have been engaging and supporting their communities through these difficult times.

“Ceremony, research and important engagement with knowledge keepers, survivors and their descendants has been taking place over the last few weeks,” Cameron said.

“Essential healing support has also been provided to a number of our survivors who are once again reliving the horrific tragedies of their experiences at residential schools.”

The funding will also allow communities to gather necessary information for ground penetrating radar work (GPR) to locate the unmarked burial sites.

“GPR teams are being dispatched to several sites across the province in the hopes of locating these children to bring closure to the survivors, their descendants, and their communities,” Cameron said.

The former residential schools of Muskowekwan, Onion Lake St. Anthony’s, Beauval, Guy Hill Sturgeon Landing and Lebret were identified last week by Cameron as possible search sites.

Locations near George Gordon First Nation and the former provincial Timber Bay institution are of interest as well.

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Tuesday’s announcement was made at the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School on the Muskowekwan First Nation, near Lestock, Sask.

It is the location of the last-standing residential school in Saskatchewan where at least 35 unmarked graves have been located.

A number of unmarked burial sites were discovered in 1992 during the construction of a water line.

Construction work was immediately stopped and the Muskowekwan First Nation and surrounding First Nation communities gave the children a proper burial.

Teams from the universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta used GPR to assist Muskowekwan First Nation to find more unmarked graves in 2019.

Last week, the Saskatchewan government said it is providing the FSIN with $2 million to support research into undocumented deaths at residential schools.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

—With files from Roberta Bell

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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