Ottawa promises to distribute money for First Nations to search for residential school burial sites

The push is on to find and protect residential school burial sites across the country.

It comes following shock, outrage and sadness over the identification of a mass burial site containing the remains of 215 children in Kamloops, B.C.

Some First Nations in Manitoba want to conduct searches and they are calling on Ottawa to help.

David Monias, Chief of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation located south of Thompson, Man., wants to search the grounds of former Catholic-run residential schools in his community. One burned in a fire in 1930 that left one teacher and 12 children dead, but a second school was later built.

“They need to be investigated to see if there's actually graveyards and see if there are any remains from the residential schools,” Monias said.

On Tuesday, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation near Brandon, Man. revealed an investigation has found a potential of 104 unmarked graves in three separate cemeteries located near a former residential school in the western Manitoba city.

A memorial has been growing at the site following the discovery in Kamloops. People visiting have placed flowers, teddy bears, and shoes in recognition of the Indigenous students who died while attending the school in Brandon and others like it across the country.

“I want everybody to understand what is going, because it is something that’s important,” said Kim Robinson, who brought her two young daughters to the site Tuesday night. “These people deserve to be remembered.”

Murray Sinclair, a recently retired Senator and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has estimated 6,000 or more children died due to abuse and neglect while attending residential schools.

“Some of the survivors talked about children being buried in large numbers into mass burial sites,” Sinclair said in a video statement posted to Facebook.

He said a proposal by the TRC to conduct a deeper investigation into the deaths was denied by the previous federal government.

“Now we’re beginning to see evidence of the numbers of children who died,” Sinclair said. “We know that there were probably lots of sites similar to Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future.”

Ottawa said Wednesday it is making $27 million of previously announced funding available to help Indigenous communities locate and memorialize children who died at residential schools.

“They’re very clear that this has to be Indigenous-led, community-based, survivor-centric, and culturally sensitive,” said Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations.

However, Monias said the process needs to go beyond locating graves and honouring the children who died.

“There should be a criminal investigation,” said Monias. “Somebody needs to answer for these cases and we need some action that’s more meaningful than just setting up memorials.”

Ottawa has said communities will immediately start getting details about how to access funding to conduct searches and the minister has promised the money will be distributed on an urgent basis.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said it has documented the deaths of 4,117 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in residential schools across Canada.

It wants the government to implement national standards for burial site searches to ensure the privacy of affected families and to protect any evidence of crimes.