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Comment: Communities reeling from residential school revelations need support

It is disgraceful that survivors, families and communities must fight for their missing children to be treated with the dignity they were denied in life.
St. Michael’s Indian Residential School entrance at Alert Bay, with two students on the driveway, in a 1970 photo. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

A commentary by two Canadian Senators

When death occurs, people gather to pay respect, honour the deceased and support their loved ones.

But when it comes to the thousands of children who went missing while being forced to attend Indian residential schools, some seem to think that Indigenous people should simply move on.

Why is that?

Indigenous families and communities have spent decades looking for the children who were sent to these institutions of assimilation and genocide.

In a 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada identified 3,200 ­confirmed deaths but added that the actual total was likely far higher.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has since documented more than 4,000 deaths as part of its work to create a national death register.

In addition, communities continue to make announcements related to the potential existence of unmarked burials at Indian residential schools and associated sites such as hospitals or sanatoriums. As a result, some families are finally getting answers about what happened to their little ones — but many are still waiting.

In the absence of sufficient funding, limited or late access to records and sites, and other much-needed supports, survivors, families, communities — as well as the organizations that work to support them — are being left on their own to do this work.

It is disgraceful that survivors, families and communities must fight for their missing children to be treated with the honour, respect and dignity that this country denied them in life.

Worse still, a wave of denialism is seeking to cast doubt on the basic facts of the Indian residential school system. In addition to being deeply hurtful, denialism poses a real threat to national truth and reconciliation efforts by shifting attention away from the real horrors that took place at these institutions.

When Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc announced in May 2021 that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the possible burial sites of as many as 215 children around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, many of us expected a long-overdue reckoning.

More than two years later, not enough has changed.

In March 2023, the Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples heard from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian residential schools, which are involved in research, education and advocacy related to the impact of the residential schools.

Based on their testimony, our committee issued an interim report on July 19 aimed at supporting their sacred work.

In total, we make six practical and achievable recommendations to the federal government. They include calls to:

• Expedite the transfer of all relevant records from governments, churches, and other ­entities.

• Extend and expand funding available for communities to search Indian residential schools and other sites where burial sites may be located.

• Establish a multi-jurisdictional mechanism to help families access information about their loved ones.

• Provide adequate, predictable, stable and long-term funding to ensure the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation can fulfill its mandate.

• Take steps to combat rising denialism.

In addition, our committee intends to invite record holders to a committee meeting to explain why they have yet to disclose them to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

To us, reconciliation is not a single outcome but a lifelong process. It goes beyond acknowledging the truth of the harms inflicted upon generations of Indigenous people in Canada and offering an apology.

It is a journey that requires governments, churches and broader society to take immediate and concrete actions that lead to a better future for all.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in its final report, “Without truth, justice and healing, there can be no genuine reconciliation. Reconciliation is not about ‘closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past,’ but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice.”

Senator Michèle Audette is an Innu member of the Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples, an intergenerational residential school survivor and a former commissioner of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

Senator Brian Francis is Mi’kmaq from Epekwitk (Prince Edward Island). He is chair Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples and a survivor and intergenerational survivor of the Indian Day School system.

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