At least 751 unmarked graves were found at a former boarding school for Indigenous children in Canada, officials said Thursday.
The brutal discovery took place at the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, a Catholic school that opened in 1899 and closed in 1997.
“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on First Nations people… The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous,” Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations said in a press conference.
Less than a month prior to Thursday’s announcement, a mass grave containing the bodies of 215 Indigenous children was found at another such school, the now-defunct Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Both institutions were part of a dark chapter in Canadian history, in which Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to schools run by the government and church in order to strip them of their culture and force them to assimilate. The schools were rife with physical and sexual abuse, and thousands of children died, but the exact numbers and causes of death will likely never be fully known.
Cameron said many more of these former schools will be investigated, and they expect many more graves will be found. “We will find more bodies, and we will not stop until we find all of our children,” he said.
“Canada has unearthed the findings of genocide,” Cameron said. “We had concentration camps here … They were called Indian residential schools. Canada will be known as a nation who tried to exterminate the First Nations, and now we have evidence.”
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said the graves were once marked, but the Roman Catholic Church, which ran the school, is believed to have removed the headstones in the 1960s. Delorme called on the pope to apologize for the church’s role in running the residential schools.
“The pope needs to apologize for what has happened,” Delorme said. “An apology is one stage of many in the healing journey.”
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also called on Pope Francis to apologize for the church’s responsibility in the deaths of the Indigenous children. “As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the position that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years,” Trudeau said.
Days after Trudeau’s comments, the pontiff expressed sadness over the discovery of the mass grave in but did not offer an apology. “I join with the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news,” Francis said in public remarks.
On Thursday, Trudeau said he was “terribly saddened” that the bodies of even more Indigenous children had been found.
“No child should have ever been taken away from their families and communities, and robbed of their language, culture, and identity. No child should have spent their precious youth subjected to terrible loneliness and abuse,” Trudeau said. “No child should have spent their last moments in a place where they lived in fear, never to see their loved ones again. And no families should have been robbed of the laughter and joy of their children playing, and the pride of watching them grow in their community.”
If you need support, the 24-hour Indian Residential School Survivors Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.