The House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion on Monday that included calls for a national residential school monument to be erected in Ottawa, and for financial resources to be deployed to Indigenous communities to ensure they can identify unmarked burial sites at former residential schools.
The motion, from Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, was tabled on National Indigenous Peoples Day. It also included a call for the federal government to ensure religious entities that participated in the residential school system provide access to relevant archives, in order to assist with research into abuses at the schools.
The federal government has faced increased political pressure to aid the process of investigating residential schools since the end of May, when Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said that a preliminary search using ground-penetrating radar had discovered the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia.
Monday’s motion doesn’t compel the government to take action. It is strictly a statement of purpose by the Commons.
Ani Dergalstanian, a press secretary for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, said that, in keeping with the values in the motion, “Canada will continue to support families, survivors and communities in this important and difficult work, as well as memorializing their lost children and the tragedy of residential schools.”
To date, the federal government has said it will send $27-million to Indigenous communities to assist with research on residential school students who went missing.
The funding comes from $33.8-million set aside in the 2019 federal budget for the creation of a register of student deaths at residential schools and to help Indigenous communities hire archeological search firms to locate unmarked burial sites. The money is also intended to help commemorate students who died at the schools.
Former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chair Murray Sinclair told The Globe and Mail last week that the amount seems inadequate to him. He called for an independent investigation into deaths at residential schools, but he said such a probe should not be left in the hands of governments, the police or church organizations. Indigenous leaders should be involved in deciding who will carry out the work, he said.
NDP MP Niki Ashton presented a motion on Friday that called for the federal government to establish an independent commission, which would provide oversight and support in the search for unmarked graves near residential schools. The motion failed because of insufficient support from the Liberals, Ms. Ashton said.
She said that First Nations and other experts are calling for an independent commission to be established and for international experts to be brought in. The current level of government funding for probes of residential schools is “offensive and inadequate,” she said.
“While significantly more resources are needed by Indigenous communities, so is an independent commission that can work with communities, establish standards, and provide oversight and guidance – including in terms of criminal investigations,” Ms. Ashton said Monday.
Mr. Sinclair said the primary purpose of an investigation should be to determine what happened to residential school students who went missing, who and how many died, and the whereabouts of relevant records. The TRC knows there are gaps in records about the schools, he said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told The Globe that it is a human-rights violation of the highest degree that children who attended residential schools were buried and forgotten.
Mr. Bellegarde, who will be leaving his role early next month, said it is incumbent upon governments to ensure there are proper human and financial resources for residential school investigations and to ensure calls to action from the TRC are fully implemented with respect to missing children and burial information.
He called the recent revelations about burials in Kamloops a validation of what survivors of residential schools have been saying, adding it has woken up the world to “genocide.”
The TRC’s calls to action include a recommendation for the installation of a publicly accessible, highly visible residential schools monument in each Canadian capital city, to honour survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.
Mr. Sinclair said progress on implementing the TRC’s calls to action, which were released in 2015, has been relatively slow, particularly at the federal level. He said the announcement by Ms. Casimir will likely spur speedier action. Acting on “low-hanging fruit” is not going to be the way the country achieves reconciliation, he added.
“It’s about doing the hard work,” he said. “And the hard work right now is about dealing with the issue of children who died in the schools and what happened to them.”
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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