’Heartbreaking and devastating’: 93 unmarked graves found at former Beauval IRS

English River First Nation Chief Jenny Wolverine announces the finding of 93 unmarked graves, 79 children and 14 infants, at a news conference in Saskatoon on Tuesday, Aug. 29. Photo by Valerie G. Barnes Connell Jordan.

The discovery of 93 unmarked graves, 79 children and 14 Infants, after two years of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) searching, Chief Jenny Wolverine described as “heartbreaking and devastating” to Elders, Survivors and community members.

The discoveries were made in a cemetery at the grounds of the former Beauval Residential School, which operated from 1860 to 1995. The findings bring Phase One of the search to an end, Wolverine said while speaking at a news conference in Saskatoon on Tuesday, August 29.

After calling for a Minute of Silence to acknowledge “the 93 children that never returned home,” Chief Wolverine spoke about the reaction, impacts and how the residential School experience “disrupted their lives and connection.”

“We are a unique community because we are composed of Cree and Dene,” she said. “We also have one road in and one road out. We continue to fish, to hunt and gather and use the land as our elders and ancestors have taught us and continue to teach us.”

Wolverine said the First Nation choses to follow their traditional ways to process and begin to heal from the impact of the GPR findings.

“We are all connected to the land. We know each other. We know each other’s families. We know each other’s children. We have a Kinship system where we are connected by those beliefs and those traditions … we also know the impact of Residential School to our communities.”

She stressed, “while the schools may be closed, the impact affects us today.”

In 2021, when English River began the search for children who never returned home, no one was sure what to expect, but there were stories, which were passed down from Survivors, Elders and community members over the years that gave them an idea where to look.

“We began there, based on the stories that had been shared in our communities and what we found was heartbreaking and devastating. To date, there are 93 unmarked graves, 79 children and 14 infants,” Chief Wolverine said.

The next step will involve further GPD searches in other areas identified by Survivors and Elders.

“Let me be clear that this is not a finality. This is not a final number,” Wolverine added. “It breaks my heart that there are likely more even that there…. The experience of Residential School is horrific … The discovery of the graves earlier this month was just the first step in what will continue to be a long and difficult journey.”

English River was joined and supported by Dene Vice Chief Lawrence McIntyre and Cree Vice Chief Richard Durocher of Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC), Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), Métis Nation Saskatchewan Vice President, Michelle LeClair, and Treaty Commissioner Mary Cuthbertson.

All leaders spoke strongly and voiced their support for English River and the 16 communities, which could potentially be impacted by the loss of these children. They shared many stories of the impact the school had on their grandparents, parents and themselves intergenerationally.

The support was solid and included calls on Canada and Canadians acknowledge the reality of the schools and their impact on Indigenous people and to learn about the Residential School system, so they can understand and ensure the history is not repeated.

Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson shared the journey of so many Indigenous families.

“Right now, is the time of year where everyone’s taking kids back to school. Getting them ready. Imagine for the people who are watching and yourselves in this room of reporters and settlers, and your four-year-old going to their first day of Kindergarten next week and you’re not going to see them until June. Imagine your four-year-old waking up crying cause it’s their first night away from their Mom and Dad and there’s nobody there to hold them. There’s nobody there to wipe their tears, and that continues for months. Imagine the child not coming home in June and nobody can tell you what happened. Imagine this continuing for over 100 years and nobody believed our Survivors, nobody believed our oral history. Now they do.”

She talked of many of the impacts of Residential Schools on children, who went from know who they are, speaking their language, living off the land and then being put into the schools.

“I cannot say this enough: it is our responsibility as people who live in this country to educate ourselves, take advantage of the resources, they’re everywhere now … there are many resources out there – There’s Survivors, talk to them. Educate ourselves and each other.

“I’m the Treaty Commissioner. I feel I have to constantly keep apologizing for the broken Treaty promises and so we all have that responsibility as people who live who get to live on this land to make amends and try to rectify these broken Treaty promises … These stories aren’t going to stop coming. These tears aren’t going to stop being shed. They get to hold their children at night. They get to kiss them. They get to hug them. Many of our people did not have that opportunity, nor did our parents feel that love.”

“The massage I want to bring here today is that Canada has to acknowledge not only what happened in the Residential School era, but what happens every day in the justice system, in the health system ,in the hospitals, in the courts, the [injustice] that our people have and yet, we’re trying like darn to bring our children up in a good way, bring our grandchildren up in a good way,” Vice Chief Richard Durocher, Meadow Lake Tribal Council Cree Vice Chief, said.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron shared his experiences of the impacts of the loss of children in other communities across Canada. and what he has heard from other community leaders.

“We’ve heard it loud and clear from many of our Treaty territories what they want – to build healing and wellness centres at those exact sites (of Residential Schools). The government of the day can spend millions and millions of dollars building and rebuilding these Residential schools even after some caught fire, burned to the ground. They still rebuilt. They can rebuild healing and wellness centres right at those exact sites.”

MN-S Vice President Michelle LeClair spoke in support of English River referring to the decades of stories about the schools told by Survivors, ancestors and descendants.

“It continues and continues and continues where our communities have to find our own children. We have to find those kids and the government of Canada … has to provide information from those schools in order for communities to be able to identify our own children,” she said.

“For too long we’ve had to tell the stories … children dying at the hands of authorities, without ceremony, hidden from history, from their communities, until now.”

English River First Nation announced the finding in a news release Aug. 8, asking for privacy for Survivors, Elders and community members.

The cemetery was used solely for the school until the early 1980s said Dawn McIntyre,  who is one of the coordinators for the search process.

She read the Survivor’s Statement, which included: calls to the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments and the churches to “put words into action,” have the will to implement the TRC Calls to Action; install culturally appropriate memorials in “our communities;” erect “meaningful and respectful monuments to acknowledge all residential schools; provide healing centres “to address the continued harms of the Indian Residential School System; provide complete records that list ALL student who attended residential school; and embark on a national educational journey that properly reflects the effects residential schools have had on First Nation and Métis families.”

The next steps will involve further searches in areas Survivors and Elders have noted in stories and remembrances of the Beauval school.

English River is located in northwest Saskatchewan, is a signatory to Treaty 10. Most students who attended the Beauval Residential School were English River First Nation members.

This Indian Residential School impacted more than 15 communities in that region including many of the Métis settlements and First Nation communities together.