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Solar lights placed next to each unmarked grave at former residential school site

COWESSESS FIRST NATION — Members of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan spent Saturday morning placing solar-powered lights next to each of the 751 unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school.

A vigil was planned for later in the evening and a moment of silence was scheduled for 7:51 p.m.

After that, community members planned to wait for darkness when the lights, charged by the sun during the afternoon, twinkled on one-by-one.

The First Nation announced Thursday that the unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School were located using ground-penetrating radar, the same technology that detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at another former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Jon Z. Lerat, a band councillor and chair of the Chief Red Bear Lodge, which is the First Nation's child safety service, says there were some tears while the lights were planted in the ground on Saturday.

He says the announcement of the graves has triggered numerous elders, but he says there were also laughs and smiles as families and friends gathered.

"To me personally, it was heartwarming for me knowing that these unmarked graves are being acknowledged. As sad as it is, it makes me happy and a lot of others happy," Lerat said in a phone interview as he prepared for Saturday night's vigil.

Lerat said the vigil, which was also to include a smudging ceremony, drumming and speeches, began with an idea from the community's youth council for a candle-light ceremony. When that idea switched to a solar-light ceremony, a connection with a car dealership in Prince Albert, Sask., proved helpful.

Lerat said a Cowessess member is a salesman with the dealership, and his boss wanted to do something to support the community.

"We wanted to put a solar light at each unmarked grave, so that each and every one of them were acknowledged," Lerat said.

"They immediately said they wanted to help and they donated 800 solar lights. The next day they brought them down."

A teepee has also been erected at the site and a fire will burn for four days.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Friday to the people of the Cowessess for the pain they are feeling.

That suffering and grief is also prompting some communities to cancel or alter their Canada Day celebrations. 

Meanwhile, information is still emerging about the unmarked graves in Saskatchewan. 

It appears that not all of the graves contain children's bodies, Lerat said. He said the area was also used as a burial site by the rural municipality.

"We did have a family of non-Indigenous people show up today and notified us that some of those unmarked graves had their families in them -- their loved ones," Lerat said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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