First Nation says 54 potential graves in former Saskatchewan residential schools

By Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press on February 15, 2022.

A photograph of the St. Philip’s residential school in Saskatchewan from the archives of the Société historique de Saint-Boniface is presented in a document. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Saint-Boniface Historical Society **MANDATORY CREDIT**

KEESEEKOOSE FIRST NATION – A First Nation in eastern Saskatchewan says 54 potential graves have been discovered by ground-penetrating radar at the site of two former residential schools.

Keeseekoose First Nation says the graves were discovered on the grounds of St. Philip’s Residential School and Fort Pelly Residential School.

“It will be a very difficult time for our community, knowing that we had unmarked graves in our community, in our common areas, that we drive every day, that we walk every day,” Chief Lee Kitchemonia said.

Project leader Ted Quewezance said the ground-penetrating radar had 42 hits suggesting the possibility of unmarked graves at the Fort Pelly site and another 12 at St. Philip’s School.

Quewezance, a former chief who attended the schools, said the find corroborates what people in the community have been saying for years.

“It wasn’t that they couldn’t hear, but they didn’t believe our survivors,” Quewezance said.

The Fort Pelly School operated from 1905 to 1913 on the First Nation near Kamsack, Saskatchewan.

The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation said the headmaster was fired in 1911 after it was reported he was drunk and threatening everyone at school. After its closure, a day school opened in the same building.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that St. Philip’s School had a widespread problem of sexual and physical abuse, which led to the firing of a school supervisor for the mistreatment of students during the last decade of the school.

St. Philip’s was run by the Roman Catholic Church from around 1927 to 1969 and has been described by survivors as hellish.

“These are not just cases where a principal or a teacher has disciplined. These could potentially be murdered, hidden children,” Kitchemonia said. “We don’t know any of those answers.”

St. Philip survivor Fred Brass told the commission that the school was dominated by a violent regime of punishment. He said he lived day and night in fear of being mistreated.

“I saw my brother with his face held against a hot pipe and then having his arm burned by a supervisor,” he said.

The commission, which documented survivor accounts and released a final report in 2015, recorded two student deaths at St. Philip’s and two at Fort Pelly.

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools between the 1860s and 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented at least 4,100 deaths.

The St. Philip’s building in Keeseekoose, not far from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, served as a student boarding house from 1902 to 1914 before being closed due to poor conditions.

It was reopened in 1927 as a boarding school.

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, Elaine Durocher said upon entering residential school “the abuse started right away.”

“We were stripped, taken to a dormitory, stripped. Our hair was sprayed “¦ We were still praying. We were still on our knees. We were told we were stupid little savages and they had to educate us,” Durocher said of his time at St. Philip’s School.

She said she had received no significant education at school.

“They were there to discipline you, teach you, beat you, rape you, assault you, but I never received an education.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help survivors of residential schools and their loved ones suffering from trauma invoked by the memory of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 15, 2022.