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An audience watches as the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for missing children unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian Residential Schools holds the first National Gathering on Unmarked Burials: Supporting the Search and Recovery of Missing Children in Edmonton, on Sept. 14.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

While millions of Canadians mourned the loss of Queen Elizabeth last week, a series of meetings at an Edmonton hotel exposed once again the two stark realities in this country.

The first of eight planned National Gatherings on Unmarked Burials took place last week. But while these sessions are of profound national importance, they seem to have been barely noticed by non-Indigenous Canadians and media outlets.

Instead, Canada was focused on the death of a monarch who silently presided over a swath of the residential school era. That was not lost on the 350 Indigenous leaders, survivors and community members at the hotel, who had to endure coverage of the Queen’s funeral on seemingly endless loops from lobby restaurants.

In her 70 years as Canada’s head of state, the Queen ignored broken treaties that tried to swindle land away from First Nations, not to mention the racist national policies that led to the running and maintenance of the so-called schools – along with the myriad of traumas left in their wake. Our communities live through those traumas and their effects every single day, as we were recently reminded by the murderous rampage that took place on James Smith Cree Nation, which left 10 dead, and the continued victimization of vulnerable Indigenous women.

This inaugural three-day gathering was organized by Kimberly Murray, the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who has since turned her legal mind to taking on the federally appointed role of independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with residential schools. Her daunting task: compiling all the knowledge, information and best practices concerning the finding and caretaking of what could be more than 4,000 lost children. Ms. Murray asked me to attend the event as a rapporteur, to listen to First Nations communities’ experiences and report on the hunt for records around children potentially lost at residential schools – specifically, what records exist, where they are and how to access them. (Full disclosure: I was paid an honorarium of $250 a day, for the three days.)

Sessions at the gathering concerned search technology and what it does; what the differences are between community, coroner and police investigations; and how to protect and access residential schools and other sites.

The inaugural session also heard from women leading the recovery efforts.

Saddle Lake Cree Nation’s Leah Redcrow, an intergenerational survivor of Blue Quills Indian Residential School in St. Paul’s, Alta., spoke of the practical realities of hunting for records. Catholic parishes hold most of them, she said, including sacramental registries or birth, baptism, marriage and burials. The church is not compelled or required to share them, so she encouraged creating established “reconciliation partnerships” to ensure that both parties are held harmless in their shared goals. She called for the burnings of Catholic churches in First Nations communities to stop: Original parish records – including crucial maps, building blueprints, bulletins, classroom registries, student medical records, admission forms and more – go up in flames every time a church is torched.

Barbara Lavallee, a member of Cowessess First Nation and the lead researcher for the Marieval Indian Residential School, spoke of the importance of building a proper team and conducting the work while inspired by ceremony: “Our spirituality has been our compass and has guided work we are doing,” she said. When the Cowessess team started, they didn’t have anything to guide them – everything was trial and error. Their team now includes advanced ground-penetrating radar, geospatial scientists and archaeologists. Her community made international headlines after discovering 751 anomalies – an estimate they now believe was too low.

Ms. Lavallee said that Cowessess is using trained cadaver dogs to conduct searches, including one at a livestock barn built by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Such dogs can pick up on human scent that is decades old, with a maximum depth of 15 feet. She told us about watching the dogs move quickly at the site: “I was unsure of what was happening – I asked the handler to interpret the dogs’ behaviour. The handler said: ‘The dog does not know where to start because the human scent is so strong.’ I nearly collapsed when I heard this.”

As people came together to share knowledge and truths about the daily realities of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the obsession with the British monarchist fairy tale continued across Canada. It was a terrible disconnect to experience: between grief and affection for the distant Crown, and the people, here at home, who were left to do the hard work of picking up the pieces of the Crown’s broken promise to care for all its subjects.