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People stand on Parliament Hill alongside a memorial for children who died at residential schools during a rally to demand an independent investigation into Canada's crimes against Indigenous Peoples, in Ottawa on July 31, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

As Indigenous communities across the country develop plans to scour former residential school sites for unmarked graves of children, the federal government announced Tuesday it will provide $321-million to aid their searches and to help survivors heal from their trauma.

The new funding from Ottawa will include $83-million for the search of unmarked graves and memorializing victims. A national advisory committee will be formed to assist with the work. Among other commitments are $107.3-million for mental-health and community supports, and $100.1-million to help “manage” residential school buildings – either by demolishing them or adapting them into new structures, depending on the desires of Indigenous communities.

“We know that Indigenous communities, families and friends are hurting,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said. “For months and years, we have heard atrocious anecdotes that only remind us that calling those ‘schools’ can only be a euphemism. Now is the time to start fulfilling our duty to help First Nations, Inuit and Métis recover the truth.”

“Today’s announcement is the first step in that direction,” he said.

The government is also committing $20-million to create a national monument in Ottawa, along with $9.6-million over three years to commemorate the tragedy and mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, due to be held on Sept. 30.

In recent months, several First Nations have said they’ve located more than 1,200 unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools, setting off a national reckoning over Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people and renewing calls for reparations from governments and religious entities.

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On Tuesday, the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam nations revealed they’d launched an investigation into the fates of children who never returned home after going to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, B.C. Other communities have also started searches or plan to do so.

Starting in the late 19th century, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools, where thousands died many from disease, neglect, malnutrition and abuse. The last institution closed in 1996.

Many Indigenous leaders have been calling for an independent inquiry into what happened at the residential schools, including a criminal probe headed by experts other than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The government said Tuesday it would appoint an independent official – dubbed a “special interlocutor” – to liaise between Indigenous communities, governments and religious institutions in the continuing search for unmarked graves.

The official would also recommend a “new legal framework” to govern the process of identifying and repatriating remains found at unmarked gravesites, but would not be able to conduct criminal investigations. The role was first reported by The Globe and Mail on Monday, and Ottawa has not yet announced who will take the job.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, law professor and academic director of the University of British Columbia-based Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, said she was encouraged by the creation of an independent official. It amounted, she said, to a government admission that it could not properly address unmarked graves and missing children under Canada’s existing legal framework.

“It’s a welcome and overdue acknowledgement after 4,000 lawsuits, a class action, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and years of advocacy and testimony from survivors,” she said.

However, Dr. Turpel-Lafond said she was concerned that the official was not to interfere in criminal investigations, since she believes the abuses should be investigated as crimes against humanity or genocide.

“It’s a bit awkward, because in fact that’s exactly what [the government] needs advice on,” she said.

Police in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are investigating criminal allegations at a former residential school and children’s home, according to Madeleine Gomery, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. “It must be remembered that politicians do not direct police operations or investigations, which are independent of government,” she said.

RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival said the force’s national headquarters does not undertake investigations – those are done by local RCMP divisions – and that the organization will “continue to pursue and strive to improve upon the services it provides to Indigenous people and communities.”

“We cannot dismiss the role our organization played in removing children from their families and delivering them to a harmful residential school system,” she said.

Religious institutions were responsible for operating most residential schools in Canada, which were funded primarily by the federal government. Although the Anglicans, United Church and Presbyterians operated many institutions, roughly 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools were run by the Catholic Church.

An interlocutor should examine whether the Catholic Church violated the terms of its settlement with residential school survivors, Dr. Turpel-Lafond said. According to allegations in court filings by federal lawyers in 2014, Catholic Church officials had improperly redirected funds meant for residential school survivors and were in violation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a complex 2006 legal deal between the government, religious organizations and Indigenous groups.

The court case ended a year later when the judge released the Catholic entities from their remaining settlement obligations.

At that time, the church had raised just $3.7-million of what was meant to be a $25-million national fundraising campaign benefiting survivors. A weekend Globe investigation revealed the church had $4.1-billion in net assets across 3,446 charitable Catholic organizations and had taken in $886-million in donations in 2019.

At Tuesday’s announcement, Justice Minister David Lametti said an independent official could eventually examine whether the Catholic Church violated the settlement’s terms.

“These are things that Catholics like myself would like to see looked at again, would like to see reopened,” he said. “Certainly, all options are always on the table.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett did not directly answer a question about whether the government would revisit the settlement. “What I am hearing is that the Catholics want the church to be there now to deal with the intergenerational trauma, to deal with the healing …” she said. “I think that the issue is for everyone to step up and do more.”

Dr. Turpel-Lafond said she was frustrated by Ms. Bennett’s response.

“We had 4,000 lawsuits,” she said. “We dealt with the church. We got a settlement. You let them off the hook. So we’re supposed to go back and deal with them again? Maybe you should deal with them.”

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