Canada’s largest province has announced plans to help search for unmarked burial sites at residential schools, weeks after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the site of a former school on the country’s west coast.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said during a news conference on Tuesday that his government would invest $8.2m ($10m Canadian) over three years “to identify, investigate, protect and commemorate residential school burial sites and cemeteries”.
“Our government will work in collaboration with Indigenous leaders to ensure the process is Indigenous-led and respects the wishes of residential school survivors and their families, and the affected communities,” Ford said.
“There is painful but necessary work ahead, and we must confront what happened for reconciliation to the achieved.”
For more than 100 years, Canada removed First Nation, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend residential schools, where they were barred from speaking their languages and suffered widespread physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Canada formally apologised for the schools in 2008. A federal inquiry known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2015 determined that Canada had committed “cultural genocide” by forcing more than 150,000 Indigenous children to attend the schools, which were run by various churches.
For decades, Indigenous people have said that children never came home from residential schools – and communities had demanded help from the authorities to search for unmarked burial sites. The TRC estimated that more than 4,000 children died at the schools.
Last month, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation chief Rosanne Casimir announced the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, saying “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented” had been confirmed.
The discovery spurred widespread grief and trauma for Indigenous people across Canada, especially residential school survivors and their families. It also renewed demands for Ottawa to take action and fully investigate what happened.
Several First Nations have since called for support to look for burial sites at former residential schools across the country, and some searches are under way.
Pairs of children’s shoes and toys are seen at memorial in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School [File: Dennis Owen/Reuters]Earlier this month, Chief Jennifer Bone of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, in the central province of Manitoba, said the community was actively working to identify cemeteries and unmarked graves at the site of the Brandon Residential School, which was open from 1895 to 1972.
Bone said on June 1 that the community believes 104 potential graves exist in three cemeteries. “We must honour the memory of the children who never made it home by holding the Government of Canada, churches, and all responsible parties accountable for their inhumane actions,” she said.
“There is more work to be done to bring truth to the atrocities inflicted on the children who are our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – and those children who never became parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.”Full investigation ‘critical’
Chief Mark Hill of Six Nations of the Grand River, the most populous First Nation in Canada, on Tuesday welcomed the premier’s announcement, saying “it is critical that we work together” to investigate the sites.
“After the 215 children were found at the Kamloops residential school, a full investigation into all such burial sites across Canada has become critical. At Six Nations, this has been a bitter renewal of grief for all of us,” Hill told reporters during a news conference outside the Mohawk Institute, a former residential school, alongside survivors.
“Six Nations is adamant that we must do this right, and with the best technical expertise and equipment available,” Hill said.
Alvin Fiddler, former Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents First Nations in northern Ontario, said in a statement on Tuesday that Indigenous communities must lead the work of uncovering the burial sites. “We want to find our children and bring them home,” he said.
At the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several ministers have said they remain committed to supporting Indigenous communities in their search for missing children. Ottawa also said its 2019 budget provided $28m ($33.8m Canadian) over three years to address the TRC’s Calls to Action on deaths at the schools.
Meanwhile, the discovery last month in British Columbia also has renewed calls for the Roman Catholic Church, which ran most residential schools in Canada, to formally apologise for its role in the atrocities that took place and release all its records.
Pope Francis in early June expressed “pain” over the Kamloops burial site, but did not offer the apology long-sought by residential school survivors.