Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that he would support a criminal investigation into the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked burial sites at residential schools across Canada amid growing pressure on the government from the Indigenous communities.
In an exclusive interview with Global News on Monday, Trudeau said while he was supportive of a criminal probe, it was not up to him, but the prosecutors and police to call for one.
“I will support anything that families need to move forward, for Canadians to understand the truth and to actually move forward on reconciliation,” said Trudeau in a one-on-one interview with Global News’ Farah Nasser in Brampton, Ont.
In recent weeks, preliminary archaeological surveys using ground-penetrating radar at the sites of several former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have uncovered the locations of what are believed to be unmarked burial sites containing the remains of more than 1,000 Indigenous children forced to attend the schools.
Trudeau said this was a “moment of awakening” for Canadians.
Thousands of Indigenous children went missing or died while attending the schools, which were run by the federal government and Christian churches as part of a systemic effort to assimilate them.
“We’ve known about them for generations and Indigenous peoples have known about them for generations,” Trudeau said.
The most recent discovery was last week on the grounds of the former Kuper Island Indian Industrial School, which was located on what is now known as Penelakut Island between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C.
In May, the remains of what’s believed to be 215 children were found at the site of what was once the Kamloops Residential School in B.C. That was followed in June by unveilings of hundreds of remains in Brandon, Man., Saskatchewan’s Cowessess First Nation and Cranbrook, B.C.
Some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forcibly sent to residential schools between 1860s and 1996, where many suffered abuse.
Ongoing research by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation details mistreatment at the schools, including the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children and at least 4,100 deaths in the schools amid neglect.
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.
Trudeau said everyone had a role to play when it comes to reconciliation, not just the Indigenous people and the government.
“We have to remember that reconciliation is not about us deciding what the right thing is for Indigenous communities. It’s putting Indigenous communities, survivors, family members at the heart of it.”
Last week, a Canadian military team that specializes in the forensic identification of battlefield remains said is willing and able to assist any Indigenous communities that want their help in trying to identify the remains found in unmarked burial sites at former residential schools.
To date, the number of remains reported to be found across the country totals well over 1,000.
— with files from Global News’ Farah Nasser, Amanda Connolly and David Akin
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.