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Canadian Indigenous group says more graves found; US Catholic bishops pledge to assist review

Cranbrook, British Colombia, Canada

A Canadian Indigenous group said Wednesday a search using ground-penetrating radar has found 182 human remains in unmarked graves at a site near a former Catholic Church-run residential school that housed Indigenous children taken from their families.

The latest discovery of graves near Cranbrook, British Columbia follows reports of similar findings at two other such church-run schools, one of more than 600 unmarked graves and another of 215 bodies. Cranbrook is 843 kilometres east of Vancouver.

Canada Saskatchewan vigil

A vigil takes place where ground-penetrating radar recorded hits of what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves near the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation, Saskatchewan, on Saturday, 26th June. PICTURE: Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press via AP.

The Lower Kootenay Band said in a news release that it began using the technology last year to search the site close to the former St Eugene’s Mission School, which was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s. It said the search found the remains in unmarked graves, some about a metre deep.

It’s believed the remains are those of people from the bands of the Ktunaxa nation, which includes the Lower Kootenay Band, and other neighbouring First Nation communities.


US Catholic bishops are “deeply saddened” by the recent confirmation of hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of two former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada, according to a written statement by US Conference of Catholic Bishops spokesperson Chieko Noguchi.

Bishops are also “following closely” the US Department of the Interior’s inquiry into what were known as Indian boarding schools in the United States and have pledged to “look for ways to be of assistance”, according to the statement shared with Religion News Service.

“We are deeply saddened by the information coming out of two former residential boarding school sites in Canada. We cannot even begin to imagine the deep sorrow these discoveries are causing in Native communities across North America,” Noguchi said.

The US operated more than 350 boarding schools, which were often run by churches, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to head the department that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, last week announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative  to review the legacy of federal boarding school policies.

Catholic orders administered 84 boarding schools in the US, according to America Magazine.

“It is important to understand what might have occurred here in the United States,” Noguchi said.

“By bringing this painful story to light, may it bring some measure of peace to the victims and a heightened awareness so that this disturbing history is never repeated.”


Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band, which is also a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, called the discovery “deeply personal” since he had relatives attend the school.

“Let’s call this for what it is,” Louie told CBC radio in an interview. “It’s a mass murder of Indigenous people.”

“The Nazis were held accountable for their war crimes. I see no difference in locating the priests and nuns and the brothers who are responsible for this mass murder to be held accountable for their part in this attempt of genocide of an Indigenous people.”

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Thousands of children died there of disease and other causes, with many never returned to their families.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which today is the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

The Canadian Government has acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.

Last week the Cowessess First Nation, located about 135 kilometres east of the Saskatchewan capital of Regina, said investigators found “at least 600” unmarked graves at the site of a former Marieval Indian Residential School.

Last month, the remains of 215 children, some as young as three-years-old, were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia.

Prior to news of the most recent finding, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he has asked that the national flag on the Peace Tower remain at half-mast for Canada Day on Thursday to honor the Indigenous children who died in residential schools. 

On Tuesday, it was announced that a group of Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican later this year to press for a papal apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican from 17th to 20th December to meet with Pope Francis and “foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”

After the graves were found in Kamloops, the Pope expressed his pain over the discovery and pressed religious and political authorities to shed light on “this sad affair”. But he didn’t offer the apology sought by First Nations and the Canadian Government.

The leader of one of Canada’s largest Indigenous groups says there are no guarantees an Indigenous delegation travelling to the Vatican will lead to Pope Francis apologising in Canada.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde confirmed that assembly representatives will join Metis and Inuit leaders making the trip to the Vatican in late December. 

“There are no guarantees of any kind of apology″ from the Pope, said Bellegarde.

“The Anglican Church has apologised,” he told a virtual news conference. “The Presbyterian Church has apologised. United Church has apologised.”

“This is really part of truth and part of the healing and reconciliation process for survivors to hear the apology from the highest position within the Roman Catholic Church, which is the Pope.”

Louie said he wants more concrete action than apologies.

“I’m really done with the government and churches saying they are sorry,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Canada British Columbia Residential School in Kamloops memorial

A memorial is seen outside the Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, on Sunday, 13th June. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month. PICTURE: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP.

A papal apology was one of 94 recommendations from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the Canadian bishops conference said in 2018 that the pope could not personally apologize for the residential schools.

Since the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, there have been several fires at churches across Canada. There has also been some vandalism targeting churches and statues in cities.

Four small Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in rural southern British Columbia have been destroyed by suspicious fires and a vacant former Anglican church in northwestern B.C. was recently damaged in what RCMP said could be arson.

On Wednesday, Alberta’s premier condemned what he calls “arson attacks at Christian churches” after a historic parish was destroyed in a fire.

“Today in Morinville, l’église de Saint-Jean-Baptiste was destroyed in what appears to have been a criminal act of arson,” Kenney said in a statement.

RCMP said officers were called to the suspicious blaze at St. John Baptiste Parish in Morinville, about 40 kilometers north of Edmonton, in the early hours of Wednesday.


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