$27M will soon be available to communities to help locate children who died at residential schools: feds
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Wednesday that the federal government is ready to distribute $27 million in pre-announced funding to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools.
Bennett said that by the end of the day, First Nations who want to move forward with burial site searches and commemorations will have information about how to access this funding, “which will be distributed on an urgent basis.”
On May 28, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. announced that it had found the remains of 215 children buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, using ground-penetrating radar.
In the days that have followed this horrific discovery, there have been calls from First Nations leaders, residential school survivors, and opposition parties for the federal government to fund the research and excavation of all sites of former residential schools for unmarked graves.
According to Bennett’s department the funding will be available “for a range of activities” such as supporting communities who want to conduct research, accessing professional archaeological investigation services “to identify and delineate burial sites,” and returning remains home if desired.
“Indigenous communities from coast, to coast, to coast are calling for support in this important but challenging work. Our government is here there to support them,” Bennett said.
The unspent funding now ready to roll out the door comes from the 2019 federal budget, as part of what was a $33.8-million commitment to be spent over three years to fund the National Residential School Student Death Register and to help “establish and maintain an online registry of known residential school cemeteries.”
Facing questions about why it took years for this money to be made available, the minister said that it took years for the federal government to be “ready” to roll out the funding, spending the other $6.8 million on setting up the death register and online archive of known cemeteries, as well as to engage with Indigenous communities, residential school survivors, and other stakeholders such as archivists.
“They have been very clear. They want the work to be Indigenous-led, community-based, survivor-centric, and culturally-sensitive. They wanted support for the research, access to archaeological expertise, and commemoration. We also learned about their wishes for appropriate commemoration ceremonies and markers and re-burial in home communities where requested,” said Bennett.
The funding was earmarked to specifically address the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action 72 to 76, which focus on what needs to be done to further address the missing children and burials at residential schools.
Among what’s been asked for: maps showing the location of deceased residential school children; appropriate ceremonies, markers, and reburials; procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried.
Prior to Wednesday, according to the government’s own progress report on these calls, little more has occurred than: “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada has begun discussions with various partners... towards collaborating on an engagement strategy to gain a better understanding of the range of Indigenous family and community needs and interests and about how best to move forward in a comprehensive manner.”
During question period on Wednesday, both Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh challenged Trudeau on his government’s response in the six days since the remains were discovered in B.C. O’Toole called for a comprehensive plan to address the TRC calls to action related to deaths and burials by Canada Day and Singh implored the federal government to stop fighting residential school survivors and First Nations children in court.
In a statement addressing the $27 million touted by the government, Conservative MP and critic for Crown-Indigenous relations Jamie Schmale said that it’s “highly concerning that despite having access to funding for over two years, it took a tragic, traumatic discovery for the Liberal government to take action.”
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said determining where and how many more Indigenous children’s remains may be buried in this country is “is an important part of discovering the truth.” He tasked key cabinet ministers including Bennett, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal to determine what more the federal government should be doing to support Indigenous communities through the re-traumatization the B.C. discovery has prompted.
“We are walking at the pace of communities. I know people are eager to get answers as to what we will do nationally, and ‘what will the feds do?’ The reality is, is this is something that will be dictated to us by the communities that are affected,” Miller said at Wednesday’s press conference.
Miller said that some communities view these former residential school sites as sacred ground, while others view them as crime scenes and so the federal government is not unilaterally going to begin excavating.
“I'm not Indigenous. I know how my ancestors died. I know where they're buried, but consider a second, if I heard something about a government organization coming in and surveying—however un-invasive it is—my own burial plots,” Miller said. “You're not going to see the feds sticking their faces in this, the communities have to be front and centre, and we have to make spaces for Indigenous voices.”
Asked Wednesday afternoon why it took two years for this funding to be ready to send out the door, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland couldn’t say, pointing to the $18 billion allocated in the 2021 federal budget aimed at a wide range of Indigenous supports and programs.
“Reconciliation is not going to be a path that we can finish watching with one program, or with one budget. It is something we just have to continue to invest in,” she said.
Bennett made the announcement while marking the sixth anniversary of the release of the TRC calls to action, saying that from the federal government’s perspective, “80 per cent” of the calls to action that are under federal jurisdiction are “now completed or well underway.”
However, critics have said progress has been too slow.
The final TRC report on residential schools concluded that what happened constituted a cultural genocide. The comprehensive and extensive findings detail the inhumane mistreatment inflicted on Indigenous children who were taken from their families and sent to one of the more than 130 institutions across the country. The last school closed in 1996, 25 years ago.
The TRC’s register of confirmed deaths identified 3,200 students but work is still ongoing to uncover what are believed to be thousands more deaths that went undocumented.
“We know that there is much more to be done to further reconciliation,” Bennett said.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, said that as part of that work the federal government denied a request for funding to delve more deeply into the scope of the deaths as part of the inquiry.
He said that the TRC did what it could, but Canada needs to prepare for more discoveries at sites similar to Kamloops.
“The one aspect of residential schools that really proved to be quite shocking to me personally, was the stories that we began to gather of the children who died in the schools, of the children who died sometimes deliberately at the hands of others who were there… Survivors talked about during the time that they were there, about children who suddenly went missing, some of the survivors talked about witnessing children being buried in large numbers into mass burial sites,” he said in a 10-minute video accompanying the statement.
“We must persevere in our continued investigation of what we need to know about these schools,” he said.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.