The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada’s residential schools says the country is beginning to see evidence of how many children died at the institutions and that more sites will likely come to light.
Murray Sinclair released a video message on Tuesday evening, his first public remarks since the remains of children were discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last week. He said survivors of the schools need to understand that it is important to make this evidence public so Canadians can see the magnitude of what happened and the extent of responsibility. This includes what he described as the need to force churches that have documents related to residential schools to disclose them.
Mr. Sinclair said his commission heard from survivors who talked about children being “buried in large numbers into mass burial sites.” He also shared that the commissioners were told infants born to young girls at residential schools fathered by priests were taken away and “deliberately killed, sometimes by being thrown into furnaces.”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said last week that preliminary findings of a search with ground-penetrating radar discovered the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The announcement prompted calls for provincial governments and Ottawa to take action, and has led to commemorations across the country that use the shoes of young children to symbolize those who never came home. A final report on the work at the site is due in June.
Mr. Sinclair, who retired from the Senate earlier this year, said on Tuesday that the TRC had asked the previous Conservative government to allow the commission to conduct a more fulsome inquiry to explore this issue on behalf of survivors and the Canadian public. He said that request was denied.
“We did what we could, but it was not anywhere near what we needed to accomplish and needed to investigate,” he said. “Now, we are beginning to see evidence of the numbers of children who died. We know that there were probably lots of sites similar to Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future. And we need to begin to prepare ourselves for that.”
He also said he has been inundated with phone calls from survivors since the Kamloops discovery.
During a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the victims of the residential schools would have been grandparents, great-grandparents, elders, knowledge keepers and community leaders.
“They are not,” he said. “That is the fault of Canada.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said he met on Monday with his cabinet to discuss next steps to support survivors, families and Indigenous peoples. He also said that repairing the “terrible wrongs” of residential schools can occur only if every order of government takes action.
The Prime Minister also spoke on Tuesday with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. In a summary of the call, Chief Bellegarde said he urged the Prime Minister to work with First Nations to find all unmarked graves “of our stolen children” and to accelerate progress in response to the TRC’s calls to action.
B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario committed this week to helping support First Nations groups wanting to conduct similar searches of the former residential school sites that dot these provinces.
Manitoba’s Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Relations did not explicitly commit to funding such work, but said it is partnering with First Nations leaders, residential school survivors and Ottawa on other measures related to the calls to action on these unmarked graves made by Mr. Sinclair’s Commission.
Murray Rankin, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, echoed Mr. Sinclair’s call for the Catholic church to co-operate in identifying remains.
The TRC produced a conservative estimate that 4,100 of the roughly 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children forced into these schools died of disease or accidents while there. Mr. Sinclair previously said that as many as 6,000 children could have died.
In Question Period at Queen’s Park on Tuesday, Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, who is his party’s critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, asked the provincial government to provide timelines and a funding commitment for a pledge made this week to help find other unmarked graves.
Government House Leader Paul Calandra said the province is committed to funding the effort, which should be led by First Nations. He did not outline a specific schedule or an amount, but said Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford and Premier Doug Ford support working with First Nations on the issue.
Mr. Mamakwa said searches must be Indigenous-led because communities need to trust the process, and the governments need to provide the resources to make it happen. He said it is crucial that governments move beyond sending condolences, thoughts and prayers and putting flags at half-mast.
“If you’re a Canadian, if you’re an Ontarian, they deserve to know what’s happened; the real history of Canada,” he said.
Mr. Mamakwa said there is no guide on how to do the work.
“I think every community, every nation, survivors need to have a say on what that process is,” he said.
Mr. Trudeau is also facing calls from community leaders to fund forensic searches of the grounds of former residential schools.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, the chief and executive council of Pimicikamak Okimawin in northern Manitoba said they are “certain that there are bodies to be found on the grounds of the residential school in our community.” They also said survivors have spoken about unimaginable abuse at the school and that children went missing from it. There must be truth for there to be reconciliation, they added.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the First Nations Summit and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations also asked Ottawa to work urgently with First Nations to create new measures and laws around these sites, including making it a crime to hide, damage, interfere with or destroy mass graves now or in the past. The group also wants the federal government, in concert with Indigenous partners, to immediately identify, seize and control all records of the Kamloops school to ensure they inform the investigation.
When asked whether the federal government will finance more searches, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government is engaging with survivors, families, Indigenous peoples and organizations to determine the best path forward and to ensure this work is focused on survivors and is culturally sensitive.
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.
With reports from Jeff Gray in Toronto and the Canadian Press
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