WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
On the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where an estimated 751 unmarked graves have now been identified, Carol Lavallee remembers a skating rink.
At the time Lavallee, who was forced to attend the school at just six-years-old, had no idea the rink was situated above a burial site. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she heard rumours of unmarked graves on the school grounds.
“There was a barn there. There used to be a chicken coop, a pig sty, and a cattle corral was over those graves… why would any religion condone something like that,” Lavallee told CTV National News.
“The priest was in charge of the school, he knew there were bodies there…. There must be records of it.”
On Thursday, Cowessess First Nation, located 164 kilometres east of Regina, announced the discovery of the unmarked graves, found after radar scanning of the school grounds and surrounding areas.
Chief Cadmus Delorme emphasized that the findings were not from a mass grave, but unmarked graves where headstones had been removed by the Catholic Church representatives.
As efforts to scan the grounds continue, community members have many questions of just who exactly is buried there. At this stage of the investigation, officials say they are unable to identify the remains in the unmarked graves, which may belong to both adults and children who attended the residential school.
Lavallee believes it is the resting place of several generations of people from the community, including her siblings who died as children.
But the discovery of the burial site has unearthed decades of mental anguish for Lavallee who – like thousands of other survivors – is demanding help for her community.
“I was one of the girls that was abused to the fullest extent. Not only physically, sexually, mentally, spiritually. Every aspect of abuse, I suffered… I didn’t provoke anybody. I was just taken by the hand and suffered the abuse. I didn’t ask for it, I was innocent,” she said.
“Because Canada is finally learning what horrible experiences we went through in residential schools, my dream now is to see the government help us find ways to get our healing centres in place. To reteach us how to be parents, to reteach us how to deal with our mental anguish from suffering for so many years, to reteach us our healthy ways.
We have to heal now. Canada please acknowledge the atrocities you did to us.”
Lavallee notes that mental health funding isn’t just essential for survivors, but for the children of survivors who also shoulder the burden of intergenerational trauma.
“Children are suffering because they took away the skill of parenting and love away from us. Social services is just another residential school, they’re taking our children left and right. Give us back our children, teach us how,” Lavallee said.
“Let us get healthy enough to where we can love again.”
But with so many unanswered questions, community members are also pleading for the release of the school’s records which some say were removed from the church and the school.
“All the information was the time the oblates came every little thing I’ll say this the oblates were very particular they had all information written down since day one.” Audrey Lerat, who also attended the school, told CTV National News.
“The records were taken from the parish and taken to Manitoba to St. Boniface and I told them, ‘What are you going to do with them, why are you taking them there?’ And they said they were taking them to the archives… I went there twice to Winnipeg to try to get them and they always said they didn’t have anything.”
Delorme says he is confident that the Church will hand over records pertaining to the school, but currently, they have just one book of records from a Knowledge Keeper, who he said held onto it when she was young, despite threat of charges.
He added that additional information comes from oral histories and grandparents who took account of having to bury their own classmates. All the more reason to protect the survivors, Lavallee says.
“We’re strong people. We’re good people. We’re sharing people,” she said. “Give us back [our humanity]. Help us to get it back.”
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.