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To date, the federal government has allocated $27-million, which was originally earmarked in the 2019 federal budget, for research into burial sites at former residential schools.

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Ottawa says it is open to an independent investigation to discover the truth of what happened at residential schools, but says Indigenous communities should lead next steps in the process.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told The Globe and Mail on Friday that the federal government will “get the heck out of the way” for communities that want to pursue further investigation.

“But to ask the federal government to lead it would be untoward, particularly given the context of it, where there is a large burden of responsibility that falls squarely on the federal government’s shoulders,” he said.

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The Trudeau government is facing calls from Indigenous experts, including former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chair Murray Sinclair, to ensure that the country funds an independent probe to determine whether crimes took place at the schools. Ottawa has not explicitly committed to offering funds for an investigation.

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On researching burial sites, Mr. Miller said the government will support any Indigenous community that wants to pursue that work. He said support will be much broader than a budgetary amount announced in 2019, which is being deployed immediately.

To date, the federal government has allocated $27-million, which was originally earmarked in the 2019 federal budget, for research into burial sites at former residential schools.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was speaking outside of Rideau Cottage on Friday, said there is an openness on the part of the government to do everything necessary to support Indigenous communities who want to know the truth to move forward on reconciliation.

As documented by the TRC, the schools were government-funded, church-run operations that involved the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, communities and culture.

Bobby Cameron, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief, said Thursday that there must be an independent inquiry into what happened at the schools. Ottawa announced this week that FSIN, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, would receive $4.88-million from the $27-million in federal funding.

On Thursday, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said that 751 unmarked graves were found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School. The announcement was made less than a month after leadership of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation in southern B.C. said 215 unmarked graves of children had been located at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

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Mr. Sinclair recently told The Globe that there needs to be a determination about whether there were “coverups” of crimes. He said an investigation should not be left in the hands of the government or the churches and must instead be created in consultation with Indigenous communities.

Mr. Trudeau said Friday that Canadians are waking up to something that Indigenous peoples and those who worked closely on the TRC’s calls to action have long known.

He also said the TRC put forward significant findings that will allow for a proper understanding of what happened at the schools and will give families opportunities to grieve. In 2015, the commission released 94 calls to action for various levels of government and organizations. Last December, TRC commissioners said they were concerned about the slow and uneven pace of implementation.

An outstanding request from Indigenous leaders and community members is also for the Pope to issue an apology to survivors, their families and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the schools. The TRC also made this request in their final report, calling for the apology to be delivered in Canada. Mr. Trudeau has personally called on Pope Francis to issue an apology.

Archbishop of Regina Donald Bolen said Friday that his organization provided records related to Cowessess First Nation about two years ago. He said that residential schools were run by religious communities, first sisters, then oblates, so the archdiocese is short on information about who attended the institutions.

“In terms of school records, we have almost nothing,” Archbishop Bolen said in an interview.

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The church has some baptism and funeral records, albeit not comprehensive accounts, he said. Sacramental records contain private details about individuals, and the church has helped find information upon request, Archbishop Bolen added. It also has a few letters detailing appointments for priests that could help reconstruct who was working where and when, but there are gaps in these documents as well, he said.

The Catholic religious order that operated residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia also said it will disclose all historical documents in its possession.

The Missionary of Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 schools, including the former Marieval Indian Residential School and the former Kamloops Residential School, said it remains deeply sorry for its involvement in residential schools and “the harms they brought to Indigenous peoples and communities.”

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 a report from The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau and his Liberals are facing mounting calls for a full, public and independent investigation into the deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools and for greater federal resources to aid in uncovering unmarked burial sites. Trudeau says he wants to respect First Nations leadership and take their lead on moving forward with truth seeking, but many of those leaders say a full public inquiry is needed. The Canadian Press

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