Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
More than 10 years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), asked the federal government to help fund a series of projects that would identify burial site locations of children at Canadian residential schools.
The funding for this, around $1.5 million, was denied by the feds, which was led by former prime minister Stephen Harper at the time.
On Monday, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, tweeted about the TRC request, saying the “TRC report established clearly that this was an issue that needed to be addressed urgently and unfortunately the request for funding from the working group in 2009 was denied.”
The call for national funding in locating the burial sites of children at former residential schools, is once again, under the spotlight.
Last week, the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found buried at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the news as heartbreaking on Friday, a day after the announcement was made by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir.
On Monday, he promised “concrete action” to help support survivors, families and Indigenous peoples.
Katherine Ainsley Morton, a Ph.D. candidate at Memorial University Newfoundland and a researcher working on anti-colonial research on residential schools, argued there should be “less talk” from the federal government and more “action.”
“There should not be a financial barrier to return children who were killed in residential schools to their communities,” she said. “Funding is so critical in making sure this important work takes place.”
On Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the government to work with Indigenous leaders to fully fund investigations into potential mass burial sites across Canada.
“Because the sad reality is this isn’t the last site, there are many others that have been found and there will be more that will be found. Indigenous communities deserve to have the justice to make sure every site like this is uncovered,” he said at a media conference.
There is currently no federal “streamlined, easy to access funding” to support an investigation into missing children and possible burial sites across Canada, Morton said.
If communities want to look into a possible burial site, there are a lot of “barriers,” as some bands have to pursue their own independent funds, whereas others have to apply for provincial funds.
For example, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation received a grant from B.C.’s Pathway to Healing program, which allowed the nation to pay for ground-penetrating radar in finding the 215 children.
“But there isn’t a clear way to access these funds,” Morton added.
Global News emailed Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada about the need for funding Indigenous communities so they can research and manually search the ground of former residential schools for burial sites, but did not hear back at the time of publication.
Funding to find graves denied
According to the TRC, 4,100 children died while attending residential schools. But that number has now gone up another 215 deaths, since the tragic news of the Kamloops burial site.
The TRC’s Missing Children and Unmarked Burial Project, started in 2007, has sought to find who and how many residential school students have died as well as where they are buried.
Volume 4 of the TRC report said in 2009 the project proposed four proposals, which would help identify how many children died in residential schools and where they were buried.
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- A statistical survey for an accurate estimate of student enrollment, including rates of death and disease at residential schools.
- A study that would review administrative policies of these schools relating to death, illness and missing students.
- A study intended to identify the location of cemeteries and gravesites in which students are believed to be buried.
- A project to help locate information regarding former students who may have died or gone missing while in the care of residential schools, including locating burial sites.
The estimated cost of the project was “in excess of $1.5 million,” according to the report.
In 2009, the TRC requested the funds from then Indian Affairs, but it was denied in December 2009.
“The federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the Commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincerest belief in their importance,” the report stated.
Alex Maass, the former lead archaeologist of the TRC’s Missing Children’s Project, told Calgary’s The YY Scene in 2012, the project was restricted by underfunding.
She said she had visited schoolyard cemeteries across Canada in an attempt to find where missing children were buried. But the process of finding the unmarked graves was slow because the “TRC suffers from a chronic lack of funding.”
“That second step of doing the ground-penetrating radar is not something that we’re funded to do,” she told the media outlet. “There are approximately 140 schools on the list now. … There will be probably as many cemeteries as there are schools and in five years we just don’t have the time to do an in-depth investigation of each one of them.”
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, told Global News that the underfunding of Indigenous projects, like the missing Children Project, is repeated in history.
“They’re making a conscious choice that these kids are not worth the money,” she said. “Like these inequalities, like water, etc., like they were always complaining, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have the money,’ therefore, the default is, ‘We’re going to racially discriminate against children as fiscal policy.'”
Under the TRC, there are six proposals for the Missing Children Project.
Among them is a call for former residential school students to establish an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, plot maps showing the location of deceased children.
According to the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada website, the 2019 federal budget announced $33.8 million over three years to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register and help maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries.
Morton argues more needs to be done to help Indigenous communities find the unmarked graves, as there may be many more sites across Canada.
The same survey techniques used in Kamloops — such as the use of ground-penetrating radar to detect bodies — are needed, she said, as well as funds to access archival research, like residential schools survivor stories and archives from the churches or provinces.
“The research components have a cost associated, but the actual physical work of searching the grounds itself would also have a cost component,” she said.