The Ontario government is pledging $10-million over three years to identify, investigate and commemorate residential school burial sites across the province, following the recent discovery of unmarked children’s graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The announcement is the first large funding commitment by a provincial government to uncover burial sites, a process that is expected to include archeologists, forensic specialists and historians.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford made the announcement in Kenora, Ont., on Tuesday alongside Indigenous leaders, with Premier Doug Ford appearing virtually from Queen’s Park.
Mr. Ford said he was heartbroken by the discovery in Kamloops. “We know the news from Kamloops has deeply impacted survivors and their families. And that Indigenous people are hurting, including here in Ontario. ... While we’re prepared to work with the federal government, we simply cannot wait any longer to act,” he said.
Mr. Rickford said that the findings in B.C. “are sadly not an anomaly.”
“We know that these are reopening wounds, some that have never healed, frankly, and bring painful memories to the surface. That’s why it’s critical that any search-and-recover efforts are community-led, led by Indigenous people,” he said.
Mr. Rickford also said he would be writing to his provincial counterparts to convene a meeting and update them on Ontario’s plans.
The premiers from Canada’s territories and Western provinces met on Tuesday and pointed to the discovery at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as they committed to working toward Indigenous reconciliation; but that did not come with any specific commitments to fund work to uncover unmarked burial sites.
Only Premier Jason Kenney of Alberta said his government planned to make a specific funding commitment. Mr. Kenney said his government plans to announce a “multimillion-dollar” grant program in the coming days that would allow First Nations to fund archeological work at former residential school sites or set up permanent commemorations.
“Our understanding is that, in some cases, some of the nations may not actually want to disturb graves for spiritual reasons,” Mr. Kenney said. “In any event, we will be there to support their choices and we will be doing do so financially.”
Ontario will take a three-phase approach to its plan, which Mr. Rickford said will start immediately. The first will include trauma and mental-health supports for survivors, information gathering, and an engagement process with elders and community members. It will be followed by burial-site identification and field work, and later by potential death investigations and forensic examination as well as repatriation and commemoration. All are subject to the communities’ wishes.
The federal and provincial governments, as well as the Catholic Church, have been under pressure to provide resources to Indigenous communities to conduct investigations at former residential schools after the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation said in late May that preliminary findings of a search with ground-penetrating radar discovered the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Speaking at Tuesday’s announcement in Kenora, Grand Chief Francis Kavanaugh of the Anishinaabe Nation said the Catholic Church needs to make efforts to bring Pope Francis to Canada to make a formal apology to all First Nations across the country. Chief Mark B. Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River, speaking outside a former residential school near Brantford, Ont., also called for the involvement of the Ontario Provincial Police as well as the province’s Solicitor-General and Attorney General in the investigations.
In response to the findings in Kamloops, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said $27-million earmarked in the 2019 federal budget will be “deployed immediately” to communities to “find and honour children who died at these institutions.” The Quebec government recently announced a “consultation circle” with provincial and federal governments, while B.C. has said it is working closely with the federal government to support requests from First Nations.
The Ontario government said its three-year process will be guided by Indigenous leadership, with the first two phases to include trauma and mental health supports, as well as initial site identification. That will be followed by “a much more extensive process” that will take into account the wishes of affected families and communities.
The province said it will identify technical experts to lead related research, analysis and technical field work, and Indigenous communities will have the option to work with specialists such as the Centre of Forensic Sciences and the Office of the Chief Coroner.
Opposition parties at Queen’s Park welcomed the announcement, but called on the government to do more. NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, his party’s critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, said $10-million was insufficient and merely “a drop in the bucket.”
Mr. Mamakwa - the only MPP to attend a residential school - said he was told by the government he would be briefed on the announcement, but he was not. “I am stunned by this government’s continued lack of understanding and respect,” he wrote late Tuesday on social media. “The sacred responsibility of finding our missing children and bringing them home should be above politics.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said he supports the funding but urged the government to reinstate the Indigenous curriculum changes it cancelled in 2018. He also called for a standalone Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation to be appointed to oversee the initiative.
Mr. Rickford said the $10-million commitment was viewed as a “reasonable” resource, but the province will review whether more money is required. He added that searches may extend beyond school sites.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings in 2015, there were 18 residential schools in Ontario. The last one closed in 1991, and some sites have been repurposed, abandoned or destroyed.
The commission estimated that at least 426 children who attended residential schools in Ontario are known to have died, while an unknown number are missing. Research also identified 12 unmarked burial sites in Ontario but the government estimates there are likely more.
Ontario Regional Chief Roseanne Archibald said in a news release she is grateful for Ontario’s announcement.
“Our little ones need to be found, named, and where possible, returned to their families and communities,” she said. “Memorial sites must go up across Ontario to remind us that we can never let this happen to our children again, ever.”
With reports from James Keller in Calgary and Justine Hunter in Victoria
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.