Lloyd Lerat recalls the day in the early 1960s when workers arrived to remove headstones from a section of the Cowessess First Nation cemetery in Saskatchewan, which is now covered with tiny flags marking spots left by a ground-penetrating radar survey that the nation claims discovered evidence of 751 unmarked graves.
Lerat, 72, a student at Marieval Indian Residential School at the time, claimed he and other students noticed a commotion coming from the cemetery outside the school, which is located approximately 164 kilometers east of Regina. Workers and a vehicle were seen dismantling headstones and wooden crosses.
“We came out, and there was a lot of action going on,” Lerat explained. “We knew something was going on, so we would keep an eye on things, but you couldn’t flee if you got caught. You simply had to take a look and realize, OK, something’s going on, and to see people being, I don’t know, gathered in some way, either shoved out of the way and picked up.”
Lerat, who returned to work at the school in the 1970s and rose to become administrator of the house in the 1980s, said he had no idea where the headstones and wooden crosses were placed.
Several legends have emerged in the town about what happened to the burial markers, and they all agree on one thing: they were removed in the early 1960s by a priest. However, no one tale explains why, and authorities from the Catholic Church, which operated the institution until the late 1960s, have been unable to corroborate or explain the claim.
A similar cloud hangs over the names and specific locations of individuals buried in this portion of the cemetery that has sparked national interest, with some former pupils claiming that the bulk of the 751 burial sites do not contain the remains of youngsters from the residential school.
Nonetheless, early Catholic mission documents uncovered by CBC News, as well as the testimony of village elders who attended Marieval residential school, provided some insight on who could be buried there.
The records and testimonies also indicate that the Catholic Church may have further papers including some of the names associated with these unmarked graves.