Archbishop Don Bolen of the Archdiocese of Regina offered his condolences to those struggling in the wake of the discovery on Cowessess First Nation Friday, and said the local archdiocese will be following the lead of the Indigenous community in terms of offering support moving forward.
Bolen spoke to media individually, following the announcement from Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme that radar penetration had 751 hits — potentially more than 600 grave sites — at the unmarked cemetery site near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
“The news is overwhelming [and] it raises so many questions and really resurfaces the pain associated with residential schools,” said Bolen.
“I want to reiterate my great respect for Chief Cadmus and for Cowessess First Nation for the really respectful and powerful way in which they are walking through this situation. We are with them in solidarity, and ready to help in whatever way we can.”
A letter from the archbishop to the Cowessess Chief was also shared publicly on Thursday via social media, offering an apology “as the weight of past suffering comes into greater light.”
The archbishop said that he had previously visited the site with Delorme, and both knew that approximately two-thirds of the graves in the area were unmarked.
But, even with this knowledge, the true number uncovered by investigators was still shocking, said Bolen.
“I don’t think anybody expected 751 hits with the ground penetrating radar,” said Bolen.
The majority of records pertaining to Marieval Indian Residential School are in the possession of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Roman Catholic entity that operated the site, and not with the Archdiocese of Regina, confirmed the archbishop.
The Oblates issued a written statement on Friday morning reaffirming their dedication to releasing records to the public, many of which are in the form of journals hand-written by the missionaries that are in the process of being digitized.
“Without a full review of the existing historical documentation from our order’s involvement, the truth of residential schools will not be fully known.” said the statement.
The statement also added that the disclosure of those documents has been slowed due to concerns with provincial and national privacy laws, and consultation is needed to move forward.
“We further acknowledge that delays can cause ongoing distrust, distress, and trauma to Indigenous peoples across British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the rest of the country,” continued the statement.
Bolen emphasized that the archdiocese is committed to providing any support that Cowessess needs in the steps ahead to locate records and identify those resting in the burial sites, including aiding in communications with the Oblates if needed.
“We’ll play whatever role we are asked to play [moving forward], and we’re really letting Cowessess take the lead on it,” said Bolen. “If there’s any way that we can help, we will.”
Already, the Archdiocese is helping with a request from the public to help collect photographs of the Marieval school site taken in the last 50 to 70 years from community members.
Bolen also said that a group of Saskatchewan bishops has been working for several years with Indigenous leadership groups to organize a delegate of Indigenous leaders to travel overseas for a meeting with the Vatican.
“That includes leaders, elders, knowledge keepers, survivors, youth so they can speak directly to Pope Francis and he can hear them and engage,” said Bolen. “I think that’s a critical next step, and it’s going to happen before the end of next year.”
Partnership between the Archdiocese of Regina and the Cowessess First Nation regarding the former school site has been underway for several years, said Bolen, and will continue into the future.
“The old colonizing model is, ‘the Church and society know what Indigenous people need and we’ll do it,’ and that’s shown a terrible outcome,” said Bolen. “So we’re moving to a place where really we’re letting Indigenous communities know we’re ready to help, and please let us know what we can do.”