The commission examining Indian residential schools is launching a massive new research project to find out who is buried on school grounds and what happened to the young aboriginal boys and girls who left for boarding schools and never returned home.
Kimberly Phillips, a spokesperson for Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the expanded research has been approved by Claudette Dumont-Smith, one of the commissioners.
The "Missing Children Research Project," as it has been named, will include "an examination of the number and cause of deaths, illnesses and disappearances of children at the residential schools as well as the location of burial sites," Ms. Phillips said.
Ms. Phillips said researchers will go through all relevant church and federal government records to find information that will help families looking for lost children. They will also prepare a questionnaire, and encourage former students and people who worked at the schools to come forward with their stories.
The commission's plans also suggest possible options for honouring the spirit of those who died.
According to a commission document obtained by The Globe and Mail, one option involves "visiting residential school sites where graves of Missing Children are located or the cemeteries near the schools where Missing Children have been buried."
Tuberculosis was the most common reason cited for deaths at schools across the country, however, survivors have said that rumours have circulated over the years that some of the forgotten children died of neglect, abuse or even murder.
The project is viewed internally as highly daunting, given the sheer volume of material available and number of former students willing to talk. It will build on preliminary research that The Globe reported on Monday.
That research confirmed that several residential schools had graveyards on site, that children at some schools were tasked with digging graves, and that some of those cemeteries were unmarked or had only anonymous white crosses.
AFN national chief Phil Fontaine said through his lawyer yesterday that the documents featured in The Globe underscore the need for a commission to continue gathering the complete history of residential schools.
"This is the very kind of issue that needs to be raised," John Phillips said. "It's the reason the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created."
That view was echoed by Mike Cachagee, who says he buried the first of four classmates when he was eight years old at Saint John's Indian Residential School in Chapleau, Ont., and then at Moose Factory Indian Residential School in Moose Factory, Ont.
He said he was told the children died of tuberculosis.
Mr. Cachagee, who chairs the National Residential School Survivors' Society, said former students want these graves identified so they can better understand their family histories.
"We can't just have our people planted in the ground and forgotten about," he said. "That's basically what they did."
The missing children project has been given the green light as a key meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Toronto to sort out the controversy over the surprise resignation of commission chairman Mr. Justice Harry LaForme and to map a way forward.
Mr. Phillips will represent the AFN, and lawyers for the federal government, churches and former students will also attend.
There are many differences of opinion heading into the meeting. The federal government wants a legal clarification of the role and powers of the three commissioners. In his resignation letter, Judge LaForme had said there was disagreement over whether the chairman can overrule the two commissioners or whether the three individuals must operate on consensus or majority rule.
Judge LaForme has also claimed that the two other commissioners disagreed with his view that reconciliation should take precedence over digging up truth from the past.
A source close to the process said one of the principal questions to be addressed is whether commissioners Jane Brewin Morley and Ms. Dumont-Smith should be replaced, in light of Justice LaForme's acrimonious departure.
"You'd have to be crazy to step into the remnants of such a dysfunctional situation," the source said.