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Children's red dresses are staked along a highway near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School where flowers and cards have been left as part of a growing makeshift memorial to honour the children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C., on June 2, 2021.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Facing a national outpouring of grief and anger over the long-ignored deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools, the federal government said it will distribute $27-milllion to help communities locate and identify those lost.

During the same announcement, government ministers asked Roman Catholics to demand a papal apology for the church’s role in the schools and release all records on those it operated. Hours later, the Archbishop of Vancouver, J. Michael Miller, apologized for the devastation wrought by Catholic-run schools. In a statement, he vowed to be fully transparent with any records under his control and offer technological and mental-health support to find and honour students who died.

The Kamloops residential school’s unmarked graves: What we know about the children’s remains, and Canada’s reaction so far

Kamloops residential school survivor says Canadian outpouring of support can bring healing

The discovery of a mass gravesite at a former residential school in Kamloops is just the tip of the iceberg

“If words of apology for such unspeakable deeds are to bring life and healing, they must be accompanied by tangible actions that foster the full disclosure of the truth,” he said.

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The federal funds will go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation for its work on the National Residential School Student Death Register, and help Indigenous communities research missing children, hire archeological search companies and commemorate the dead.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said on Wednesday that the $27-million will be available immediately and comes from $33.8-million set aside in the 2019 federal budget for these purposes.

Ms. Bennett said it is important that communities determine how the work will proceed, and Ottawa consulted with communities, experts and survivors, and now funds can be dispersed.

“We are there to respond and get them the funding they need to do the work,” she said.

Members of the community of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory in Quebec march during a memorial procession on May 30, 2021.

PETER MCCABE/AFP/Getty Images

Ottawa made the commitment five days after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir announced preliminary findings of a search using ground-penetrating radar that discovered the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The finding touched off vigils and commemorations and demands for provincial governments and Ottawa to take action.

One prominent jurist said funds are inadequate to address the requirements of international law or the unthinkable loss of grieving communities.

“These are crime scenes,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and professor of law at the University of British Columbia. “Any unexpected death, any unknown burial without documentation has got to be treated as a crime scene. That’s international humanitarian law.”

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She added that burdening communities with the investigative responsibility is contrary to legal norms. “Communities don’t investigate their own genocide -- that’s whacky,” she said. “We don’t ask victims to investigate the crimes against them.”

However, more and more communities across the country are requesting assistance to do the same kind of high-tech investigation conducted in Kamloops. The schools operated across the country from 1831 to 1996. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has determined that more than 4,100 children died while attending residential school. Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair recently said the actual number could top 20,000.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits a memorial at the Eternal flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 1, 2021.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Steve Sxwithul’txw has no doubt that students remain buried off the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island on the former grounds of the Kuper Island Residential School, which he attended for a year at the age of five in 1970.

“A lot of our people that attended tried to run away… from one side of the island to the other or they tried to swim their way out, and I know for a fact that many didn’t make it who tried,” said Mr. Sxwithul’txw, a film producer from the Penelakut Tribe. Three of his five sisters also were at the school.

Devastated by last week’s news and doubtful about Ottawa’s willingness to scour more sites for unmarked graves, Mr. Sxwithul’txw, his partner Michele Mundy and friend Tom LaFortune launched a crowdfunding push to buy a ground-penetrating radar machine and begin searching five sites on Vancouver Island or on islands surrounding it.

The group, all Indigenous from communities on or just off Vancouver Island, plan to enlist professionals to scan the grounds of Mr. Sxwithul’txw’s former school, as well as St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, Port Alberni’s residential school, and the Ahousaht and Christie schools, both near Tofino.

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Within a day of the online appeal’s launch, more than 400 donors had stepped up to blow past the trio’s initial goal of $25,000, pledging nearly $40,000.

“It clearly signals that change is in the air and people want to help,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s overwhelming and it’s heartwarming as well.”

Autumn Peters places 215 ribbons on the fence behind the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in honour of the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, as well as her grandfather Clayton Peter, a survivor of the school, and all other survivors, in Kamloops, B.C., on June 2, 2021.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The national scale of the work is daunting, but necessary, said Eleanore Sunchild, a Cree lawyer who has worked in recent years to identify and commemorate a gravesite near the Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan, where at least 74 children are believed to have been buried between 1883 and 1914. The site now has provincial heritage protection.

“They need to search every single residential school site in Canada for the presence of mass graves,” she said. “Any residential school still standing should be examined forensically for crimes.”

Cyril Pierre, a survivor of 12 years at St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission, B.C., said his schoolmates shared stories of unmarked graves on the grounds.

“We believe from the generations and generations of stories that there are thousands more bodies to be discovered at probably every one of the nation’s residential schools,” said Mr. Pierre, a 73-year-old member of the Katzie First Nation near Vancouver. “At St. Mary’s, we heard all the same stories as they did at Kamloops. I’m hoping to be there when we start probing. The truth is in the ground.”

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Residential schools of Canada

From the 1870s to the 1990s, Canada operated

a residential school system often, in partnership

with churches. More than 150,000 First Nation,

Métis and Inuit students were sent to residential

schools. This map accounts for the 139

covered under the initial Indian Residential

School Settlement Agreement. Hundreds more

were operated privately, by other religious

dominations or provinces. The last federally

funded residential school closed in 1996

in Punnichy, Sask.

Hudson

Bay

Kamloops

St. Anne’s

Shubenacadie

St. Mary’s

Gordon’s

Portage

la Prairie

UNITED STATES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: truth and reconciliation commission

Residential schools of Canada

From the 1870s to the 1990s, Canada operated a resi-

dential school system often, in partnership with church-

es. More than 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit

students were sent to residential schools. This map

accounts for the 139 covered under the initial Indian

Residential School Settlement Agreement. Hundreds more

were operated privately, by other religious dominations or

provinces. The last federally funded residential school

closed in 1996 in Punnichy, Sask.

Hudson

Bay

Kamloops

St. Anne’s

Shubenacadie

St. Mary’s

Gordon’s

Portage

la Prairie

UNITED STATES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: truth and reconciliation commission

Residential schools of Canada

From the 1870s to the 1990s, Canada operated a residential school system, often in partner-

ship with churches. More than 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit students were sent to

residential schools. This map accounts for the 139 covered under the initial Indian Residential

School Settlement Agreement. Hundreds more were operated privately, by other religious

dominations or provinces. The last federally funded residential school closed in 1996

in Punnichy, Sask.

YUKON

NWT

NUNAVUT

Hudson

Bay

B.C.

ALTA.

N.L.

SASK.

MAN.

Kamloops

St. Anne’s

QUE.

PEI

ONT.

Shubenacadie

St. Mary’s

Gordon’s

N.B.

Portage

la Prairie

N.S.

UNITED STATES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: truth and reconciliation commission

He said the remains of unaccounted-for children deserve to be reunited with their families and buried with dignity. “We as survivors have always said we don’t want to leave anyone behind, and that includes those who’ve died,” he said.

The UN Human Rights Office echoed those sentiments on Wednesday, calling on Canada to conduct an exhaustive investigation of all unmarked gravesites to find missing children.

Spokeswoman Marta Hurtado singled out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a lack of action, saying his response “is not yet clear” and offered the assistance of the UN Expert Mechanism for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The intergenerational impacts deriving from [the schools] continue to be significant, including at the linguistic, economic and cultural level,” she said in a statement. “Lack of exhaustive clarification and access to truth and redress for what happened during this dark period compounds this.”

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said people would spurn any “grand pronouncement” from the federal government during a period of such profound grief.

“We have to recognize that people are hurting,” he said. “We can absolutely reflect on the slowness of reconciliation, but now is a time where people are in pain. They’re hurting. We need to respect that process.”

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Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the Pope needs to issue an apology for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada's residential school system. A papal apology was one of the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked the Pope to consider such a gesture during a visit to the Vatican in 2017. The Canadian Press

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