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The community in Saskatchewan will mark Sept. 30 by paying tribute to both those who died and the survivors of the former residential school where 751 unmarked graves were located in recent months

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An orange sign marks one of the entrances to a site on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan where 751 unmarked graves were found.Photography by Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

Terry Lerat lived at Marieval Indian Residential School for only six months, when he was in Grade 2. He was seven years old at the time. He is now 69 – and the physical and emotional scars affect him to this day.

“It was kind of accepted that we were to be taken advantage of,” Mr. Lerat said from his home in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan as he recounted the sexual abuse he endured as a young child. He remembers the name of his abuser, how he hauled him into the shower and stripped him down, how he blacked out and woke in the man’s office folded up in a blanket.

He stops several times during the interview to wipe away tears and walks away at one point, visibly shaken. He has spent most of his life trying not to think about his time at the school, but he wants people to know the truth about what happened to him and many others at Marieval.

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Terry Lerat is still haunted by what he saw at experienced at Marieval Indian Residential School when he was 7.

In June, Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme announced that 751 unmarked graves had been discovered in the Roman Catholic cemetery at the Marieval site. He said then the gravesite is locally believed to include the remains of both children and adults, possibly people from outside the community who attended church there.

Cowessess is holding a memorial ceremony on Thursday at the site to honour the Indigenous children who died at the residential school and those who survived – one of several ceremonies planned across the country to mark Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Setting aside a day to remember the devastating legacy of residential schools was one of 94 calls to action from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But it wasn’t until this year – after the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at several former residential schools drew international media attention and an outpouring of grief in Canada – that the federal government formally dedicated Sept. 30 to truth and reconciliation.

The day is a statutory holiday for all federal employees and federally regulated workplaces. The holiday, also known as Orange Shirt Day, will be observed at some schools, businesses and different levels of government. (Orange Shirt Day has been marked since 2014, an initiative started by residential-school survivors in Williams Lake, B.C.) Still, many provinces – including Saskatchewan – are not recognizing the date as a statutory holiday.

Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, which spent six years examining the impact of residential schools in Canada, told The Globe and Mail this week that thousands of Indigenous children died at residential schools, and many of their bodies were not sent home, nor were many of their families informed about what happened.

Canada’s residential schools operated for more than a century, with at least 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children torn from their homes and forced to attend. Many were forbidden to speak their language or practise their culture. The TRC called it a policy of cultural genocide. Mr. Sinclair said a lot more of the history of residential schools needs to be uncovered, but the commission did not have the resources or the time to complete its work.

The stories told as part of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will help unearth more of that history. “We will learn as we go forward,” Mr. Sinclair said. “The other thing we are going to learn, I think, by this day is that we have not yet gotten to the full truth of what this experience was all about.”

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Flags and solar lights mark the gravesites at Cowessess, where locals believe the remains of both children and adult are buried.

At Cowessess First Nation, Indigenous researchers have been cleaning up the gravesite areas, making way for the pipe ceremony that will start the memorial service.

Chief Delorme said the community will gather and residential-school survivors will tell stories, and pictures from as far back as 1900 will be shared.

“We are going to gather, we are going to share, we are going to learn and we are going to walk forward in what we consider reconciliation,” he said.

“Truth is going to come out tomorrow, and it’s going to be a little uncomfortable. But at the same time, the unity of everybody there, the ceremony, the dance, that is what we are doing tomorrow on Cowessess.”

He said the community wants to share the day with everybody who comes to the event.

“It has been an awakening for many Canadians,” Chief Delorme said. “For many Canadians, it’s putting the shield down and starting to admit, ‘I don’t know much about the true relationship with Indigenous people and Canada.’”

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'Truth is going to come out tomorrow, and it’s going to be a little uncomfortable,' Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme says of Thursday's ceremony.

Since the news of the unmarked graves was shared with the world, hundreds of visitors have come to pay their respects. Barbara Lavallee, the lead researcher at the Indian residential-school site, said many of the visitors are non-Indigenous.

“It’s touching, they come and they ask where I can come and put my tobacco down? We tell them you walk about and wherever your heart desires, you set down your prayer and your tobacco.”

Ms. Lavallee said the next step in the search for remains includes the immediate vicinity of the residential school.

“It may be difficult because of the ground disturbance, because of the construction, infrastructure, whatever was built, a lot of ground disturbance,” she said. “That’s why my mind is two steps ahead with the advanced scientific technology that we are going to need, especially with the software. We’re going to have to find a way to find the anomalies that are consistent with burials over there.”

At an event on Parliament Hill to mark the eve of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country was responsible for terrible injustices. He added that reconciliation doesn’t just mean understanding the mistakes of the past, but it means looking at how those mistakes shape the country today.

The national day is one for all Canadians, he added.

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Mr. Lerat, now Cowessess's farm and ranch manager, said Thursday's ceremony may be uncomfortable for survivors like him, but could also help them come to terms with what they endured.

For Marieval survivor Mr. Lerat, Thursday’s events will help former students including him come to terms with the bad things that happened to them. “If you want to get the truth out – find out what happened and then use that truthfulness to move on, it’s a good thing. We’re not going to move on if that truth is not discovered, recognized and dealt with.”

Being sexually abused by the adults responsible for caring for him at Marieval is not the only memory that stays with him. He saw other children being abused, and recalls a boy who wet his bed almost nightly being forced to stand outside with his damp, soiled sheets over his head. The boy killed himself shortly after leaving the residential school, Mr. Lerat said.

He also recalls a day when he and his two cousins refused to eat the rotten food given to them daily. “Someone grabbed me from the back – here,” Mr. Lerat said, pointing to the back of his head. “They were trying to feed me. I refused to eat – and they slammed my head down.”

The impact caved his teeth in backward, cracking them along the gums and bloodying his mouth. The person who slammed his head and cracked his teeth was the man who sexually abused him.

A priest took him into his office, reached in his mouth and straightened out his teeth. “He sat me down, he said: ‘It will really be bad if you tell anyone what happened. It will really be bad. You’ll be punished.’”

The damage caused his teeth to rot down to a single black line when he was 32 years old, he said. “I was ashamed of them. I had difficult times because people would ridicule me for it,” Mr. Lerat said. “I’d get into fights at the bar and stuff like that.” He lived with bad, rotten teeth for 25 years, until he got dentures.

One of 13 siblings, Mr. Lerat came from a loving, hard-working family. His father was the first school-bus driver in Cowessess. He credits his parents for getting him out of the residential program so he did not have to stay at the school overnight. His dad built a house a mile from Marieval, which meant his children would not have to live there full-time.

Today, Mr. Lerat is the farm and ranch manager for Cowessess, and like his father did many years ago, he drives the community school bus.

He said the abuse he suffered at Marieval made him ashamed of his sexuality until he was a young adult.

“Thankfully, I married an understanding wife, and she went through the same thing [at residential school] in Duck Lake,” he said. “But she still doesn’t know my problems. I kept it away from her.”

With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa

Truth and reconciliation: More from The Globe and Mail

Countries such as Australia and South Africa have “reconciliation barometers” to measure efforts to heal their cultural divides, and a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers is working on a similar project for Canada. On the Decibel podcast, host Tamara Khandaker spoke with two of the experts behind it, Katherine Starzyk and Ry Moran. Subscribe for more episodes.

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Survey notes growing awareness of mistreatment of Indigenous peoples

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Editorial: A day of remembrance is good. Fixing the legacy of residential schools is better

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