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Senator Murray Sinclair appears before the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa, on May 28, 2019. Sinclair, the former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says Canadians should be prepared for the discovery of more bodies at other residential school sites across the country.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The federal government should pay for investigators to find out what happened to Indigenous children who died or went missing at residential schools to determine whether crimes occurred and if “cover-ups” took place, former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair says.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Sinclair said a team of experienced investigators would need the power to subpoena records from governments and the churches that ran the schools, and access to the locations.

“I think the purpose of it should be to determine whether crimes occurred, not only in terms of the cause of death but whether crimes occurred, in terms of cover-ups, too,” he said.

Mr. Sinclair has said some survivors told the TRC about children who suddenly went missing, others who were buried in unmarked graves and that girls at the schools gave birth to babies fathered by priests. He said survivors told the commission some of the babies were “thrown into furnaces.”

He said Canada has to accept the financial responsibility for the searches. “But it should not be left in the hands of the government to manage that investigation, nor should it be a police matter, nor should it be left in the hands of the churches,” Mr. Sinclair said.

Indigenous leaders should be involved in deciding who will carry out the work, he added.

The legacy of residential schools in Canada and the unanswered questions about what took place at the institutions has become a topic of national discussion since Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said a preliminary search using ground-penetrating radar discovered the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The finding led to commemorations across Canada and demands for provincial governments and Ottawa to take further action, including helping other communities search the grounds of former schools.

Murray Sinclair says more remains will be found at residential school sites

To date, Ottawa has said it will distribute $27-million immediately to help communities with their own searches. Mr. Sinclair said the amount seems inadequate to him.

The $27-million comes from $33.8-million set aside in the 2019 federal budget. The funding was designed to support the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation with the creation of a register of student deaths at the schools and to help Indigenous communities research missing children, hiring archeological search firms and commemorating the dead.

The 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, which represented a consensus among survivors of the schools, the churches that ran them, Indigenous organizations and the government of Canada, covered 138 schools, he said.

Children likely died at each of those institutions, he added, noting it must be determined what information exists about how they died and what happened to their bodies. Checking the grounds of former schools or investigating could easily cost as much as “a million dollars for each school,” he added.

He also said that many schools are not covered in the settlement agreement because the federal government said that, while it paid people to run them, it didn’t manage them. He said there “are as many as 1,300 other schools in Canada where Indigenous children were sent where they also would have died.” Those schools were generally managed by churches, he added.

“Those children who died in those schools are unknown and [what happened to them] needs to be determined as well,” he said.

The former senator said the mandate of the TRC, which studied Canada’s residential school legacy for six years, did not include determining whether crimes occurred at the schools, which operated for more than 120 years. This meant the TRC had to be careful how it stated its conclusion of “cultural genocide,” because it could not make a finding of criminal culpability.

Mr. Sinclair said the primary purpose of the investigations he is recommending should be to determine what happened to missing children, who and how many died, and to find records that have not yet been located. The TRC knows there are gaps in the records about the schools, he added.

“Our request for records did sometimes result in assertions by the government that the records no longer existed, but we had no way of challenging that,” Mr. Sinclair said.

He added that the TRC wasn’t empowered to go through the government’s archives with a subpoena, for example, to determine whether that was the case.

“And that’s also true for church records,” he said. “We had no means by which we could actually enter into the archives and determine whether there were records that were there in any of the church archives, particularly the Catholic archives.”

The commission was concerned that some of the records might have been shipped to the Vatican for storage, he said.

Last week, Martin Reiher, the assistant deputy minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, told a House of Commons committee that five million documents were disclosed as part of the residential school settlement agreement. If other documents exist but weren’t disclosed, Ottawa can go to court to compel their release, he said.

Mr. Sinclair said Ottawa should assist survivor groups to participate in that legal process. He said the testimony of people who recalled seeing children who had died being buried could help persuade a court that documentation exists and it would have been created to allow the churches to maintain their contractual obligations to the government of Canada.

Since the discovery at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Mr. Sinclair said he has heard from numerous survivors.

He said that since a healing foundation that existed during the TRC’s work was closed, he has advocated for governments to provide people who attended them with appropriate resources, including survivor centres.

“Nobody understands what they went through as well as each of them does,” he said. “I always suspected there would be more truth coming out after the TRC ended. And what I said at the time of the TRC final report was getting to the truth was hard. Getting to reconciliation will be harder because we are going to discover more and more things about this history that is going to present hurdles for our growth together as a nation.”

The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

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