Nearly 200 unmarked graves have been discovered at a former residential school in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province.
A First Nations community successfully used ground-penetrating radar to detect 182 additional unmarked graves outside the Kootenay Residential School at St. Eugene Mission in greater Cranbrook, about 386km (240 miles) southwest of Calgary.
The Lower Kootenay Band suspects these remains belong to member Bands of the Ktunaxa Nation, neighboring First Nations communities, and the community of ?Aq’am.
The Guardian reported these graves have sparked outrage across the country. They allegedly represent a dark period in national history when indigenous children were put into state-funded schools to assimilate into Canadian society where they were violently abused.
Former St Mary’s Indian Band chief Sophie Pierre was not the least bit surprised by the grisly discovery on July 7. The former student of Kootenay Residential School believes indigenous people already know there are unmarked graves in the area, because it was once a cemetery for the whole community.
“There is no discovery, we knew it was there–it is a graveyard,” she told Global News. “The fact there are graves inside a graveyard should not be a surprise to anyone.”
“We just buried one of our people there last month. Anyone who died in my community would be buried there,” she added.
Pierre acknowledges remains recently found in the cemetery are very different to those found in other areas. They remind everyone of the treatment of indigenous minors.
“What happened in these other places is these remains have been found not in graveyards, that is the big difference,” she said. “It is horrible.”
The former chief confirmed such graves were typically marked with wooden crosses, which indigenous communities still commonly use in modern times. With prolonged exposed to the elements these wooden markers can be burned or rot away.
“I do not know where my grandparents are lying in there,” she said. “All of those names, we will put markers so that we know there is a gravesite here and so we will not disturb it.”
Pierre does not rule out the possibility that the cemetery may contain remains of some children who attended the St. Eugene Mission. She believes further research should be performed to verify this.
“There could very well be, and in good likelihood, some children that were in the residential school that died here because of tuberculosis or other diseases, and were buried there,” she said according to Life Site News. “It is [still just] a graveyard.”
She is concerned so-called “unmarked graves” have become a stereotype for the cruel residential schools of the past.
“To just assume that every unmarked grave inside a graveyard is already tied to a residential school, we have got to be a little bit more respectful of our people who are buried in our graveyards,” she said according to the publication.