More potential graves, more Catholic sorrow

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – When ground-penetrating radar revealed 54 possible grave sites near the former St. Phillip’s and Fort Pelly residential schools, the Archdiocese of Regina and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate had already reached out to the Keeseekoose First Nation to make records available and offer assistance in the search.

“When news broke of the GPR findings at Kamloops and Cowessess, the Archdiocesan Truth and Reconciliation Committee reached out in a direct way not only to Cowessess but also to the other three First Nations communities that had a Catholic-run residential school within the territory of the archdiocese,” Regina Archbishop Don Bolen told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

The Oblates’ records for the two schools were already in the hands of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Société Historique de Saint-Boniface and were used, along with the living memories of elders, survivors and knowledge-keepers to guide the GPR surveys of the former school sites.

“We will continue to work with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and other Catholic leaders, to ensure all available records relating to residential schools operated by the Oblates are appropriately disclosed and accessible to survivors and their communities,” Oblate Lacombe Province provincial superior Fr. Ken Thorson said in an email.

In a letter sent before the GPR results were publicly announced Feb. 14, Bolen acknowledged to Chief Lee Kitchimonia the sorrow such discoveries bring up for First Nations communities.

“I want to identify how we as Church members can be your allies in dealing with the legacy of St. Philip’s and Fort Pelly residential schools,” Bolen wrote.

At the press conference on the reserve three hours drive northeast of Regina, Bolen spoke directly to the people of Keeseekoose.

“We are profoundly sorry for the role that Catholics played in the schools and the abuse that you suffered, and the racism and the inter-generational trauma. We are sorry, profoundly sorry,” Bolen said.

Bolen told The Catholic Register that elders and leaders he speaks to don’t want “the Church or society as a whole to wallow in shame, but to take ownership for mistakes and sins of the past.”

“We hear survivors and elders say we need to tell the story of what happened, to tell it honestly,” Bolen said. “And that means not just the terrible things that happened, but the whole complex story.”

There was a registered cemetery at St. Philip’s but 12 of the GPR hits were from other parts of the school property, not in the cemetery, said Bolen. The other 42 hits were at Fort Pelly, where elders knew there would be graves, as there were tombstones marking the graves in the past.

Bolen said he didn’t have any information that it had ever been registered as a cemetery. The Archdiocese of Regina has shared all of its records for Fort Pelly with the Keeseekoose team leading the GPR search.

The Fort Pelly school operated from 1895 until 1913, with government funding beginning in the early 1900s. St. Philip’s operated in its first building from 1928 until 1962, then moved to another building from 1962 to 1969.