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'Find it in your heart to forgive': Star Blanket members, survivors begin long road of healing following residential school announcement

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For the community members of Star Blanket Cree Nation, validation has been met – but the healing journey continues.

This comes after the announcement of findings at the site of the former Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School, following over a year of ground penetrating radar searches.

Tears were shed as ground search leader Sheldon Poitras broke the news of over 2,000 “hits” within the searched lands – as well as the discovery of remains.

The jawbone fragment of a child aged four to six was discovered during the search. The remains date back to 1898, according to an investigation from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service.

The discovery leads to a key aspect of Star Blanket’s work so far on the residential school site: validation for its members, and the survivors of the institution.

“People didn't believe what we went through as survivors. I think it’s a good thing that people know now — know the truth,” Sharon Strongarm, a community knowledge keeper, told CTV News.

The validation of the stories from so many survivors is the next step, according to Poitras.

“We had a lot of people come forward (with stories) … they had an outlet, (saying), ‘I’ve been trying to tell my story for years, and no one would believe me,’” he explained.

“It’s like a weight gets lifted off their shoulders. To have a discovery announcement like (Thursday), it validates what they’ve been saying all along. It validates their feelings and their emotions about it.”

For survivors, stories of abuse have been shared throughout their experiences at the residential school. Alex Keewatin said she went to the school for just one year in the 1980s, and alleged sexual abuse during that time.

“I know I wasn’t the only person who endured that … it was pretty tough,” she said.

“The feeling (Thursday) was a bit of sadness. I’m hoping that we’re going to move forward.”

Moving forward isn’t an easy task. Members of the Star Blanket Cree Nation live just across the highway from the residential school site, any time they look out the front window, the hurt remains.

“They see it every day. It’s there, everyday,” Poitras said.

“It’s really tough to do, when it’s here, and they know the stories, and they understand what has happened here. Maybe, some of them have had personal experience. Others have stories of loved ones experiences.”

For some in the community, forgiveness is not a sentiment that’s easily found.

According to Strongarm, it’s absolutely critical in moving forward.

“People used to say, a long time ago, ‘you find it in your heart to forgive, and when you start forgiving, you start healing,’” she said.

“But for some of us, it’s very hard, very hard to do.”

For Chief Michael Starr, his idea of full validation has not yet been met.

Star Blanket’s next announcement concerning the search, pegged for spring or summer of 2023, will be the time that it’s found.

“In my mind, full validation will come when there’s full accountability,” he said.

The Saskatchewna First Nation expects to release a more detailed update after the snow melts. Once the weather improves, the community will begin to identify the over 2,000 anomalies through excavation and DNA testing.

Chief Starr added that help will be needed from all levels of government to continue on the path to healing.

Starr hopes to have a seat at the table to discuss what is needed for the community.

He hopes that healthier options, such as wellness centres, and supports are given to pave the path for the next generation within Star Blanket Cree Nation.

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