It's time to search all residential schools for unmarked graves, First Nations groups say

The head of a First Nations organization in Saskatchewan says ground searches will soon be underway at the 22 residential schools in that province, as calls for a similar effort to take place across the country grow louder.

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, says that conversations with Premier Scott Moe and federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller resulted in an agreement to conduct the searches at all residential schools in the province.

"They're committed to working with us and getting this done for our families and survivors," he told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.

"It is going to happen, it's just a matter of when and how soon. We're hoping for [activity to begin] by the end of the week."

There has been nationwide outrage over the deaths of children at residential schools since last week, when Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said that ground-penetrating radar showed that the remains of 215 children were buried at the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, told CTV News Vancouver that information passed down through Indigenous communities over generations gives ample reason to consider more searches like the one in Kamloops.

“We may never get the full story or the full number because documents are missing, documents are destroyed, but at least giving some comfort … is important," she said.

HOW MANY MORE DEATHS?

It is difficult to accurately estimate the total death toll at the 139 residential schools that operated in Canada between the late 19th century and 1996.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) says it knows of 4,100 children who died while attending these schools. The real number is certainly greater; by the commission's calculations, it could be as high as 15,000. Prior to last week, the TRC was aware of 51 deaths at the school in Kamloops – less than one-quarter of the number of bodies detected by radar.

Cameron said that his initial reaction to the discovery was one of "shock, hurt, anger, pain, and anguish," even though he and many other First Nations people had long believed the official death toll from the schools was undercounted.

"We're not surprised because we had believed our ancestors. We had believed the survivors," he said.

"They have not been lying about the things they've seen, the horrors that they have experienced in those residential schools."

Six of the TRC's 94 calls to action, which were issued in 2015 after the commission released its findings on the residential school system, address deaths and burials at residential schools. While the federal government says it has made efforts to address those calls, including by backing the TRC in its creation of the first national register of student deaths at the schools, critics say progress has been too slow.

"The fact of the matter is, if this Canadian government can find [billions of dollars] for a pipeline at the snap of their fingers, they can find whatever money it will take … to support First Nations to be able to locate and bring their children home," Pam Palmater, the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, said Tuesday on CTV's Your Morning.

Some First Nations have suggested that all residential schools immediately be treated as crime scenes. While the TRC found that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide, and some individual acts within the schools have been treated as crimes, no charges have been laid in connection with the system as a whole, or with any undocumented deaths.

"The perpetrators haven't been brought to justice," Palmater said.

FUNDING DENIED, LATER APPROVED

Searching the grounds of residential schools for undocumented graves, while difficult, is feasible – and it is not a new idea. A request for $1.5 million in funding to assist in a search effort was denied by the federal government in 2009.

In 2019, the feds allocated $33.8 million over three years to help implement the TRC's calls to action around residential schools.

More than 80 per cent of that money will go toward "supporting the important work of communities in locating, memorializing and commemorating those children who died while at Indian Residential Schools," Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada told CTV in a statement.

"The dark legacy of Indian Residential Schools has caused and continues to cause such harm and pain – the Government has made significant investments to provide health and healing supports to Survivors, their families and communities as determined by them to address their needs," the agency said.

For First Nations in Saskatchewan, Cameron said, those needs include both federal assistance in radar searches of the grounds outside residential schools, and ensuring any children found are given proper burials in accordance with their communities' traditions and protocols.

"It's going to be a long process, but it's also part of the healing journey that we do this together, we do this in prayer and solidarity," he said.

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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.