Saskatchewan Catholic bishops call for justice after unmarked graves found at another residential school site

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News

Catholic Bishops of Saskatchewan acknowledged the need for repentance and justice, after a new discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of a former Catholic-run residential school on Cowessess First Nation, east of Regina.

“We offer our condolences but we know that this is not enough and our words must move to concrete action,” the bishops said in a joint statement June 24.

The message addressed to “First Nations, Métis, Inuit communities; families and citizens” was signed by Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop Bryan Bayda of Saskatoon, Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas, Bishop Mark Hagemoen of Saskatoon, and Bishop Stephen Hero of Prince Albert.

Letter from the Catholic Bishops of Saskatchewan – PDF

Cowesses First Nation leaders announced at a press conference June 24 that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered at the site of the former Catholic-run Marieval residential school. The announcement followed an earlier discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia.

“With the news this morning of the location of 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School at Cowesses First Nation, the Catholic Bishops of Saskatchewan acknowledge that this experience is heartbreaking and devastating for all – and especially residential school survivors, their families and communities,” wrote the bishops, who pointed to the ongoing need to address the Truth and Reconciliation “Calls to Action” and expressed support for the ongoing investigation of such gravesites.

“We are here to listen to you as you communicate those ways we can walk with you in addressing the Calls to Action, rebuilding relations, addressing issues of justice, and working towards a more just society,” stated the bishops’ message.

“We have heard you telling us that healing and reconciliation can only come after the hard work of listening to the truth, a spirit of repentance, concrete acts of justice, and working with you to bring transformation and healing.”

Earlier, Archbishop Donald Bolen also released a letter to Chief Cadmus Delorme and the people of Cowessess First Nation about the discovery at the site of the former Marieval residential school, located in the Archdiocese of Regina and operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

“The grave site work brings us face to face with the brutal legacy of the Indian Residential School system, a product of a colonialist history which has left so much suffering and intergenerational trauma,” said Bolen in the message to the Cowessess community.

“The operation of the Marieval Residential School at Cowessess left many people deeply wounded by various kinds of abuse. As you have communicated elsewhere, Chief Cadmus, even for those of us who were not there or not involved, it is nonetheless the painful legacy that we need to carry. The incredible burden of the past is still with us, and the truth of that past needs to come out, however painful, as only truth can lead to reconciliation. As you said of the grave site, ‘the truth is there.’ Thank you for your courage as Chief and that of your whole community as you seek out the truth and search for a reset that brings an end to racism and opens a path to justice and to healing,” wrote Bolen.

The archbishop again apologized for the failures and sins of Church leaders and staff in the past and pledged “to do what we can to turn that apology into meaningful concrete acts –  including assisting in accessing information that will help to provide names and information about those buried in unmarked graves – and to stand by you in whatever way you request.”

Downtown cathedral marked with paint

Pain, grief and anger at the recent discoveries has led to memorials and protests, including a June 24 incident at St. Paul Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon, in which the church was marked with red paint and the words “We were children” written on the front doors.

“When people are confronting, when wounds are torn open again, anger and associated emotions are legitimate,” Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen said of the incident. “But we can’t end up in a circle of hate and violence.”

“How do we move forward in a way that is helpful and constructive, and of course honours people’s anger and need to grieve? That’s a journey and a process we need to be patient with,” Hagemoen said.

In a message for Indigenous Peoples Day June 21, Hagemoen also pledged to continue the walk of reconciliation.

“As a bishop and as a citizen, I have learned many things from Indigenous, Inuit and Métis peoples – in fact, they have taught me to be a better bishop and pastor. I pledge that I and our diocese will continue to walk a path of reconciliation and healing,” he said.

“We must walk in love and friendship as sisters and brothers. I again ask us all to renew our ongoing commitment to building relationships of honour and respect, and to continue to take concrete steps on this journey of healing that must involve all of us,” Hagemoen concluded.

Resource: Residential schools background (Archdiocese of Toronto)