English River First Nation finds potential unmarked graves in, around school cemetery | CBC News

WARNING: This article includes distressing details.

A Saskatchewan First Nation has found what it believes to be dozens of graves in its initial findings from a radar search in and around the cemetery at a former residential school.

English River First Nation says its ground-penetrating radar search that began two years ago has found 83 potential graves or areas of interest, some of which were unmarked, at the former Beauval Indian Residential School’s cemetery.

A dozen of the potential graves average about 2.5 feet in length, which Chief Jenny Wolverine said is consistent with the burial of infants “and in line with several witness accounts of infant births, and subsequent deaths, by survivors of this school.”

Most of the graves appear to be child-sized.

“It is with sincere sadness that we announce that upon further investigation and study of these possible unmarked grave sites, most of them were labelled as ‘child-sized’ or ‘sub-adult’ in length,” Wolverine said in a news release on Thursday.

The First Nation community said there are 56 historical headstones at the cemetery near the former Beauval Indian Residential School, but did not detect anything below some of them. That is under investigation. (English River First Nation)

According to English River First Nation, there are an additional 10 findings that are under investigation.

There are 56 historical headstones at the grave site. Some of the headstones didn’t appear to have burials below them, but it’s unclear why, the First Nation said.

Wolverine is asking for privacy for the community members as they process the new information. The First Nation is planning to provide more information during an event on Aug. 29. 

According to a University of Regina publication, the Beauval Indian Residential School became an official boarding school with government funding in 1897. It operated until 1983.

English River First Nation is the latest Indigenous community to release its findings of potential unmarked graves in and around Indian Residential Schools.

In June 2021, the Cowessess First Nation was the first to announce the finding of unmarked graves, announcing a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, with other communities to follow. 

According to the English River First Nation news release, survivor’s accounts of the school have outlined other sites the radar team will search during the next year.

It also says the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation has acquired records about the school they are hoping will eventually lead to the identification of children who are buried there and the First Nation communities they were from.

An old black and white photo of former students of the school -- all in uniform in a school picture
A photo of students at the Beauval Indian Residential School. (English River First Nation)

The community’s Elders Council said it is shocked but not surprised to learn of the radar team’s findings.

“Horrifying and gruelling stories of abuse from survivors have been circulating in our communities for generations,” the council said in a statement.

“We can confirm that we have heard heart-wrenching survivor accounts of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse, including stories of children dying under suspicious circumstances, and even babies being born and dying at this school.”

The council expressed its sympathy and prayers to people affected by the recent findings and called on people, governments and institutions to acknowledge the team’s findings and for government to work with First Nation communities to provide resources to help them heal.

“There are many people suffering to this day as a result of what has occurred at this school and others like it across the country,” it said.

The Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) said in a statement Thursday that English River First Nation is closely connected to the Métis community Patuanak, with both Métis and First Nation children having been sent to the Beauval school.

It said an emergency response team from MN-S was sent to the community to provide support.

“Over 15 northern communities have been impacted by today’s devastating discovery, and it is likely that every family in the north will be touched by this tragedy and we are here to support everyone,” said MN-S vice-president Michelle LeClair in the release.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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