The discovery of a mass grave at a former Kamloops residential school highlights the need for a formal, legal and human rights framework to investigate similar sites in Canada, says a B.C. legal scholar and advocate.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond heads the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, and formerly served as the province’s advocate for children and youth.
“A mass grave is a crime scene, it is not a historic site or a heritage site,” Turpel-Lafond told Global News.
“It is well and past the time that Canada and provinces, they need to stop treating the finding of human remains of Indigenous people as sort of a heritage issue.”
The Kamloops Indian Residential School is but one of many where Turpel-Lafond says Indigenous people have reported children disappearing, but have been given little or no state support to investigate.
That has left First Nations to spearhead the work themselves, potentially with the support of a few academics and intermittent grants.
“The United Nations has a framework to deal with mass unmarked graves in such situations like Rwanda and other places around the world,” she said.
“We may have to turn to some of those international principles so that we can make sure we do the right thing here.”
Turpel-Lafond is calling on the federal government to immediately appoint a special rapporteur to bring international standards to the issue in Canada.
Legislation and funding to create a framework that will ensure investigations happen, are done correctly, and are done in a way that incorporates Indigenous leadership while respecting cultural safety and protocols, are also needed, she said.
“There are fundamental human rights issues here that we have to consider — the right to life, were these children’s right to life appropriately respected? I mean, every indication points to it that they were not,” she said.
“What about the disappearance? How can you just disappear like this? What kind of last rites and dignified treatment was given to these children? Their parents and families maybe were not notified, probably were not. And they’ve just simply been missing.
“Indigenous people have to have a right to a proper investigation, a remedy and reparation, respect culture and beliefs here. But fundamentally, what we’re talking about is the importance of the right to truth.”
State support, she added, would mean Indigenous peoples and survivors of the residential school system would not be forced to shoulder the burden of an inevitably re-traumatizing investigation, she added.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc said Thursday that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed the remains of at least 215 children at the site of the former residential school.
The band is now laying the groundwork for what will likely be a multi-year process of identifying, repatriating and telling the stories of the children. That effort could involve the B.C. Coroners service, the Royal B.C. Museum and forensics experts.
The Kamloops residential school operated between 1890 and 1969. The federal government took over the facility’s operation from the Catholic Church and ran it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of at least 51 children dying at the school between 1915 and 1963.
-With files from the Canadian Press