Ottawa has millions still to spend on missing children and cemetery searches

Click to play video: 'Calls for Canada to recognize and document its racist foundations'
Calls for Canada to recognize and document its racist foundations
WATCH: As Canada grapples with the horrific discovery of 215 children at suspected burial sites of a former B.C. residential school, there are calls for the country to do more to address the racist policies and actions of the country's past. As Eric Sorensen reports, Indigenous leaders say the country needs to stop celebrating historic figures responsible for the residential school system – Jun 1, 2021


Victor (Fort Resolution).

(Baby) Redbreast.

Jack B.


Those are but five of the 4,118 names listed in the National Student Memorial Register, the registry of all those Indigenous children known to have perished at a residential school.

Five names of children who were so little known to their minders that they are not identified by their full names. There are dozens and dozens on that grim list who could only be listed this way.

Read more: Residential schools: What we know about their history and how many died

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The Register was created and is maintained by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba, the centre created in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be a repository of the commission’s work and to help fulfill the Commission’s 94 recommendations or “Calls To Action.”  The 72nd recommendation was that a register ought to be created with the names of all those young Indigenous People who died in a residential school.

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The register will only grow. When the commission finished its work in 2015, it concluded that at least 3,000 children had died in residential schools, though it conceded then that that was a conservative estimate. Six years later, the registry has 4,118 names and some researchers and advocates believe that the list may grow to 6,000 names or more. Notably, it does not include the names — at least not right now — of Indigenous students that passed away while at day schools.

Click to play video: 'N.B. to investigate history of Indian day schools in province'
N.B. to investigate history of Indian day schools in province

The registry was created with a one-time grant from the federal government of $2.6 million but, as the Centre notes on its online FAQ page, “a significant portion” of its funds now comes from donations. In addition to maintaining and updating the student death registry, the NCTR also operates a program that offers modest grants of up to $7,500 to Indigenous communities, survivor organizations and other groups which may wish to hold commemoration or healing events.

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There were six Calls To Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report that dealt with missing children and burial information and while the Trudeau government from its inception in 2015 promised it would implement every last one of the 94 Calls to Action (CTA), the only one of the six involving missing children and burials that has been completed is number 72 — the student memorial register.

It was not until its final budget as a majority government that the Trudeau Liberals set aside funds to implement all the Calls to Action on missing children and burial information. In Budget 2019, the government set aside $33.8 million to be spent over three years to implement five of the six CTAs on missing children and burials for which it was responsible.

Read more: TRC requested $1.5M to find graves at residential schools. The feds denied the money in 2009

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The CTAs that are still outstanding call on the federal government to lead the way in searching for and identifying residential school cemeteries; to find and inform families of deceased children’s whereabouts and arrange for appropriate commemoration and, if requested, reburial; to create a plan for ongoing maintenance and repair of cemeteries; and to do all of that according to principles established by Indigenous communities.

The government maintains its own website where it tracks progress on all Calls To Action and, for Calls To Action, 73-76, the government is, by its own admission, still working on things. Pressed this week on when those outstanding four will finally be complete, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted that the work must move at a pace that is determined, above all else, by its Indigenous partners.

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“I am as impatient as you are to move forward on this, but not so impatient that I’m going to take shortcuts that are going to leave us with missed opportunities and further trauma in the years to come,” Trudeau told reporters Monday. “Yes, we have to do these things as quickly as possible. People are impatient. People know that we need to move forward … concretely on this. But it can’t be just Ottawa saying this is what we need to do, this is how you need to fix it, this is what the money is going to go for. It has to be done in true partnership. And that is one of the big lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Click to play video: 'Trudeau vows ‘concrete action’ after B.C. residential school grave discovery'
Trudeau vows ‘concrete action’ after B.C. residential school grave discovery

Of the $33.8 million set aside in 2019, most of it — $27.1 million remains unspent, in reserve — waiting to be allotted to “communities in locating, memorializing and commemorating those children who died while at Indian Residential Schools,” according to Ani Dergalstanian, the press secretary to the minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett.

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It’s unclear though how that money will be disbursed, how communities will apply for it, or what sort of eligibility rules for funding will emerge. And, of course, no one seems to know if that will be enough money.

Read more: Saskatchewan residential school survivor reflects on tragic legacy: ‘My little heart was just crying’

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The government did spend about $4 million last year to bring 140 people together in 16 different virtual engagement sessions on the issue. The participants, Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said in the House of Commons Tuesday evening, were from a wide variety of groups: Indigenous organizations across the country, survivor groups,  advocacy organizations, healing and cultural centres, churches and communities, archives and research institutions, provincial and territorial heritage practitioners, Knowledge Keepers and health support workers.

The point of these sessions was to get advice on how to proceed and fulfill Calls to Action 73-76. A key next step is the formation of a National Oversight Committee, though no details were available about the membership of that committee, its funding, or its mandate.

Finally, the government, in the budget tabled last month, has promised an additional $13.4 million to commemorate residential schools more broadly. Work has only just started to determine how the government will disburse those funds.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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