: Kwe kwe, ullukkut, tansi
, hello, good morning.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to acknowledge that I am speaking to you today from Treaty 6 territory in Edmonton, the traditional territory for many indigenous peoples, in particular the Cree, Saulteaux, Niitsitapi, Blackfoot, Métis and Nakota Sioux.
I'm supported by my senior officials from the department, as well as by my colleague, associate deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada, Valerie Gideon. We will be available to answer questions on many mental health and other health supports.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to survivors of residential schools, their families and their communities, and by acknowledging the ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma.
Today, our hearts are with the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc people, survivors, families and indigenous communities across Turtle Island as they grieve the loss of these innocent children.
Tragically, the gravesite in Kamloops isn't an isolated case. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented more than 4,100 deaths of residential school students across the country. There are other known cases of unmarked graves across the country, and many more—thousands, even—will be located. This is the grim reality of residential schools.
As we reflect on this loss, we must acknowledge that this isn't a purely historical event. There are parents who are still living and who lost children, maybe even amongst those found in Kamloops.
There are surviving brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and other family members who will be wondering if their loved ones are among those who have been located. We are resolved to follow the wishes of communities and offer support, as needed, to those affected, and to memorialize those innocent souls.
The recent events in Kamloops remind us about the importance of acknowledging the legacy of residential schools and their tragic impact on first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. It is difficult to imagine the pain suffered by so many indigenous children and their families and communities. It is said that one of the children found at the Kamloops residential school may have been as young as three years old—a life that was stolen and likely buried without a proper ceremony. It's disturbing, and it should never have happened, but it did.
Many students who went to residential school never returned. They were lost to their families. They died at rates far higher than those experienced by the general school-aged population. Their parents were often not informed of their sickness and death. They were buried, away from their families, in long-neglected graves.
Although it is painful, we need to continue to search for answers. Canadians have a responsibility to know the history and legacy of residential schools, and to honour residential school survivors, their families and communities.
Archaeological and historical research was conducted about potential gravesites and cemeteries at former residential school sites across Canada in advance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. All available federal-related records were turned over to the TRC. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation now houses the reports on the deaths of students. As technology evolves, it is likely that other burial sites will be uncovered.
Identifying burial locations of children who died while attending residential schools is fundamental to providing closure for families. Significant progress is being made with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action. Approximately 80% of the calls to action under the sole or shared responsibility of the federal government are completed or well under way.
We know that we can do better. Indeed, we must. Collectively, we must chart a new path toward a Canada that honours, respects and is fully inclusive for first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Renewed relationships are fundamental to the growth and prosperity of our country.
Meegwetch, qujannamiik, marci, thank you.
Are we going to hear further? Can we move to our questioning now? That's great.
Just before we start, I'd like to point out to our guests that the picture behind me is of a sculpture located in the Battlefield Park national historic site in Stoney Creek, called The Eagles Among Us. It's the work of first nations artist, David General, and is dedicated to healing and reconciliation.
On Monday, a vigil was held at that site for the 215 children, with pairs of shoes filling the sculpture base in memory of the lost children.
Throughout the current pandemic, we were saddened by the reality of people, especially the elderly, passing away with no loved ones near to comfort them. Imagine the fate of these children, in a strange place, being overcome by illness, dependent on strangers to ease their suffering, if indeed any were there, tears in their eyes, all alone, feeling unloved as the darkness of death overcame them.
We are here today, in part, to tell their spirits that they are loved. They are watching us, and we can't let them down.
With that, I am going to welcome Cathy McLeod, who has done so much great work here, back to our committee as the first questioner in the round of questioning.
I'd be happy to take that, Mr. Chair.
In budget 2019, as was noted, this money was made available. One thing that was very important and we knew at the time was that something as sensitive as this issue should not be something that the federal government simply decides in its own office spaces as to exactly what to do.
There will be many different approaches that indigenous communities want in order to deal with this. It's important to remember that, while the Kamloops school is situated in Kamloops, those children were taken, sometimes, from hundreds of kilometres away. One thing that many indigenous communities have reminded us of again and again is that they will not disturb other communities' ancestors' remains without engaging properly with them.
How to deal with these issues is very sensitive. We know that some communities have told us already that they intend simply to memorialize the location and not do further work. There will be other instances where people want to do deep forensic work, or at least work that resembles forensic work, for different reasons. We knew it was our job to listen to what they had to say. We knew it was our job not to repeat the mistakes that had been made in the past, which, in fact, led to many of these situations in which government simply made its own decisions about what it thought was best. Therefore, we conducted a consultation process.
As you can imagine, many of the people we most needed to speak to were those with living memory of the schools. Many of those are elders. Many of those consultations do not work well in the format we're using today. There were delays as a result of COVID-19, because many of the people you talk to don't have either the technical ability or, frankly, the Internet access to do this type of work. However, we conducted that consultation, and we came up with the approach that was announced yesterday.
The core of that is very much along the lines of what your colleague just asked about in the final question, which is whether we will respect the wishes of indigenous groups, what they want to do and want not to do. We got a universal message that it's what they were asking us, and we will do that.
I was acknowledging and thanking you for this great, although very sad, moment for you to call a special session where we can recognize and uplift the spirit of the child's life, which in our culture is very important.
[Witness spoke in Cree]
My name is Walking Wolf, from the Maskwacis Cree territory, and I want to thank you again, first of all, for calling this special session.
I want to draw us right back to the first report that the commission made. We concluded very early, from the stories we were hearing, that this was a direct assault. The indigenous residential school policy or the Indian residential school policy was an assault on our languages, on our families, on our communities and, very importantly, on our spirituality. I want to talk about that in terms of the impact of this finding on families and communities from the perspective of not only our traditional laws, our customary laws, but also our sacred laws, especially in terms of our practice when we lose someone in our community.
I want to begin with a story about my own grandfather, Mahihgan Pimoteyw, whose name I bear now. In a epidemic, when he was a chief, he had to bury 33 members of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in one day. That obligation was passed down to my mother, and then now to me, to help our community at times of grief and mourning like we have today.
Also, I wanted to remind us that in our history we saw many gravesites, during our journey as a commission, that were outside the graveyard, because the person may have been a young person from the school who had committed suicide, and they were not allowed to be buried within the graveyard. I want to point that out also, because when I was in residential school—three of them for over 14 years—when I was 10 and 12 I lost both of my grandparents, who actually were the ones who raised me, but I was not allowed to go to their funeral. I didn't have a chance to say farewell to my grandmother or my grandfather. Now I do, through this opportunity.
The other thing I want to point out is as a commission we always had an empty seat beside us, and I have an empty seat beside me now. We would call in the child's spirit to come and join us at the hearing, to guide us, to pray with us and just to be with us to support us. Then, after the hearing, we will send the spirit free again, back to the place of forever happiness, as our old people often call it.
I want to also reflect on our own repatriation here of 17 bodies from a residential school. All that was marked on the coffin was “nine-year-old girl” or “12-year-old boy”. There was one particular one that had “6-year-old boy”, and I chose to carry that coffin to the graveyard after our ceremonies, because that's how old I was when I was taken to residential school.
We had a traditional ceremony. By that I mean we had a wake. We sang our 16 travelling songs. We had our pipe ceremony. We had our elders speak to us during the wake, and also we had our last giveaway feast. These are traditional ceremonies that are not only ceremonies but a part of our laws. We need to do this as indigenous people when we lose someone from our community. The hardest one is always when you lose a child. We were able to do that. After that, we had a memorial for four years after the burial, on the day of the burial.
I wanted to mention that this was lost to these families of 215 children and more. In my own community, there were the 17 I mentioned. Also, there were four little skeletons that were found in the old school when it was being taken down, so it hits home for me, because our school at one time was also the largest in Canada, with over 500 students from all different parts of the province.
I want to thank the leaders here in my community—the elders who had a memorial service. We've been having prayer ceremonies every day since we heard this news, because one of the Mayan prophecies is that spirituality has to come back to leadership. I mention that one of the four prophecies they made recently.
I want to thank Deputy Minister Quan-Watson, because I know the previous witness, and he follows this with respect, the teaching, in his work.
In conclusion, I want to remind us of the sacred teachings, and in this case the one I want to reflect on is one about respect. I heard it earlier in the session that this must be community led. Yesterday I was engaged with the United Nations conference on the coming decade for indigenous languages. As you know, that was one of the ones that was assaulted as well.
In saying that, the suggestion was made that this not be indigenous led but indigenous driven, because the difference between the two words is that if it's indigenous driven, then you have a hand in it and can shape the outcomes that you desire in a good way. We need to respect that teaching, as well.
[Witness spoke in Cree]
Continue the good work you are doing, and as I did in our community, I ask for everyone who is listening to pause for a moment and say a prayer for these children who now have a bright path going back to the sacred place of the ancestors.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. That's all I wanted to present at this point.
I apologize for connecting late. The technology and connection information I was given was not as full as it could have been, and therefore I spent the last 25 minutes with your tech people, trying to get into this forum with you. I also apologize to my colleagues Commissioner Littlechild and Commissioner Wilson for missing anything they may have already said. It would have been good for us to have heard each other speak.
When I was invited to participate in this event, I debated with myself for a while, the better part of a day and a half or so, as to whether or not I wanted to participate in this, mainly because I hate the possibility that something as significant as this, as personal as this and as triggering as this is could become a political football or could become an issue that gets embraced in the political action that's going on in Ottawa. I was pleased to see and hear that the and the have joined together to indicate that they will develop a plan about how to move forward on this. I also want to commend each one of them for having reached out to me to indicate that they wish to talk about what that could entail. I've advised my colleagues of that.
The fact that it also gets played out so publicly in the media is both a good thing and a bad thing. I've spoken about this before. It's good for Canada to understand that we still have to come to terms with a lot of what occurred during the residential school era and that there are still a lot of uncovered truths out there that we need to look at. This is one of them that we identified in the course of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the same time, I recognize that this has been a huge trigger to the survivors.
I shut my phone off to all media requests—with the exception of one or two, mainly because the number of media requests was significant—and allowed the survivors to reach out to me. I have to say that I have spoken with probably about 200 survivors who have contacted me over the course of the last few days to express their reaction, their grief, their feelings of anger, their feelings of frustration, but also their huge emotion and their sense of the depth of what they're looking at for themselves and trying to come to terms with. The fact that there are very few and, in most places now, no healing resource programs available to them is a huge chapter that unfortunately has ended with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the commitment by the Government of Canada to provide healing centres and programs for survivors. It's one that I spoke about in the public statement I issued this week.
I think we really need to take that to heart. I compared it to how different it was for Canada when it provided some gathering services and resources for veterans of the Second World War when they returned. We ensured that they had places where they could gather and talk with each other, because nothing heals survivors more than other survivors.
They're now in great pain as a result of this story, and they will be in even more pain, because as we go forward, I'm sure we're going to discover additional places where bodies are buried and unmarked gravesites are found. More information is going to come to light. I will begin with those thoughts.
One of the questions that people in private conversations keep asking me is, what has the government been doing about this to this point in time? I point to the calls to action that we issued—calls to action 71 through to 75, I think—in which we identified this as a major issue that needed to be done.
The volume we issued as part of the TRC's final report, volume 4, identified the work that we were able to do in the course of the TRC. Even with the limited amount of research that we did, we were able to safely say that we believe that there are several unknown burial sites that can be discovered and located with the use of proper geological researchers and experts. Scott Hamilton, who did that work for us, has indicated on the maps and the database he was able to develop where he thinks those sites currently are.
Nothing has been done by the government to follow that up, and we think that that's a sad commentary upon the commitment the government has—or the lack of commitment the government has—to try to close the story on what happened at residential schools, because despite the fact that it may not be important to some Canadians and maybe to government officials, it's of huge importance to residential school survivors and to the families of those who did not come back.
When we were doing the work of the TRC and listening to testimony, we heard from many survivors who told us some horrendous stories about deaths at the schools. We heard stories from survivors who talked about what they believed to be acts of murder and what they believed to be acts of negligence. We were not able to test that in terms of looking behind the evidence and searching out further information. We simply allowed the survivors to tell their stories, because we knew that the depth of feeling they had about that and what they were telling us was a huge burden that they needed to have lifted—and be allowed to have lifted from them—so we wanted them to have that opportunity.
In addition to that, we know that there is additional information out there in the records that have been lost to the process, because much of our information about what records might exist shows that school records were destroyed. Some were lost to floods or fires, but many were destroyed that would tell us that information.
We do know that the Bryce report disclosed, of course, that the death rates in schools in Saskatchewan were somewhere between 25% in some schools, in one school, and 49% in another school. That tells you that if this was the death rate in that era for those schools, and if anything even approaching that 25% continued to be the death rate in residential schools for any period of time, then that was a huge problem. The Government of Canada would not accept his report. It would not allow him to continue further studies and in fact turfed him from the public service as a result of his information and the fact that he insisted on continuing to talk about it.
There was a lot done to cover this up, and that's an aspect of this story that really needs to be investigated. The fact that there are still church records that have not been revealed—that have not been made available to the national centre or to us at the TRC—related to this is also a sad commentary on the lack of commitment by the Catholic church to allow us to investigate this further. We need to have that question looked at as well.
I understand that in British Columbia.... I got a call early this morning, in fact, saying that the RCMP have now declared that a major investigation is going to occur into the bodies that have been located in Kamloops, and they are now beginning to question those who have made this story available. Unfortunately, in the typical, heavy-handed and ham-handed police way, they are simply intimidating people, rather than helping them. We need to have a discussion with the police about how they're handling it, because they should not be pursuing those who are revealing the information. They should, in fact, be looking at and looking for those records. They should be looking at what we know as opposed to trying to pursue witnesses.
The young lady who did the research on the ground-penetrating radar, for example, is quite scared of the approach that the RCMP have taken with her, and I don't blame her. My advice to her—and others—has been to make sure she has legal counsel available to her so that she is not mistreated going forward.
We have a huge task still remaining ahead of us, and we identified that as a remaining task in work with the TRC. In order for us to deal with this properly, we need to ensure that there is an independent study done into that question of those burial sites, where they are and what the numbers are going to tell us. That investigation should not be conducted under the auspices of the federal government but should be overseen by a parliamentary committee that will ensure that it is done in a proper way, as opposed to having anyone within the justice department or the department of indigenous affairs controlling that process.
I would encourage you to think about that as we go forward, because I think there are still many questions that remain to be answered. I think it's not only survivors of the schools who need to know this. The survivors of those who worked in the schools also need to know what happened, because this is hurting them as well. Several of them have reached out to me about how much anguish they are feeling over knowing that their grandfather, grandmother, father or mother worked in the school and they didn't know, or never talked about it if they did know anything. They want to know what they can do to help them as well.
I'm sure you will have a lot of questions for us, so I'll leave it at that. I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you.
Thank you very much, Chair.
Good morning, everyone. I want to acknowledge the committee and, if I may say, Chair Bratina, I also honour your expressions of remorse and what you shared with us about your wife in a very personal conversation. I think that speaks to our shared humanity as we come round this issue.
I want to acknowledge Deputy Minister Quan-Watson as well for [Technical difficulty—Editor] coming to you from Treaty 8 territory [Technical difficulty—Editor] peoples of the Dene Nation. I know Daniel lived here, but he also worked with us and paid attention to us throughout the work of our commission.
I also want to acknowledge my fellow commissioners. Good morning to you both. It's good to see you both. Thank you very much, Chief Littlechild, for your very personal sharings as well.
I acknowledge our NCTR relatives. I refer to them in that way because, in speaking of them, the existence of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was something that our commission gave birth to. It was part of our mandate with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they carry on the very important and reverent work of safekeeping all that we learned and all that was given to us by way of teachings and material effects during the commission's work.
I also want to acknowledge any survivors or intergenerational survivors who may be in the room, on this committee or joining us in other ways and whose voices and, I have to say, relentless advocacy and efforts have brought us to this time and place.
Finally, and most particularly, I want to acknowledge and honour all those across the country who are grieving and who are, at the same time, feeling expressions of feeling validated for all that they have told us and all that is beginning to be heard.
I was thinking, if only I could say happy anniversary, but we're not here to celebrate. Rather, we're here to hold up to the light those things that, in fact, we have known about for years but have until now denied, ignored, or given insufficient attention, resources, or the urgency needed for action to follow.
What was happening six years ago today—six years ago, exactly, yesterday? In fact, thousands of residential school survivors and others from throughout the land were gathered in Ottawa to witness, receive and celebrate the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. We three commissioners stood together to release the summary report of our findings, a full volume of survivors' voices—some of whom talked precisely about this issue—10 founding principles of reconciliation and 94 calls to action. We have today referenced only the calls to action numbering in the 70s, which are particularly about this, but there are others calls to action that are interrelated, such as number 82, which calls for a national monument, in part to have a commemorative place for the unknown child—those who we haven't yet found and may never find.
My part in those final speeches that day was, in fact, about the missing children. We talked about it a lot at that time, and that was six years ago.
A few months later, we released our multi-volume, full report, and our chair, Mr. Sinclair, has just referred you to volume 4, an entire volume devoted to missing children and unmarked burials.
Commissioner Littlechild has talked to you about the chairs we had in place, the empty chairs, usually two of them, one for all the little boys and one for all the little girls, so they would be ever present in front of mind in our thinking and in our work.
The conclusions in our reports did not come from thin air. They came from historic documents, from new research that was commissioned by us and from 7,000 recorded voices of former residential school student survivors, each one of them an expert on their own lived experiences, what happened to them, what happened to friends and family members, what they witnessed and those they never saw again.
Well, that was six years ago. What was happening nine years ago? In public hearings open to all who cared to pay attention, because all of our activities were public and most of them web-streamed, survivor women in Chisasibi, northern Quebec, entrusted me with this baby rattle, the shiishiikun. They conveyed a particular responsibility to me as the woman commissioner, sometimes referred to as the mother commissioner, to do all that we could to find and free the spirits of the missing children.
What was happening 11 years ago? At one of our very earliest TRC events, in Winnipeg, we sat in a circle, which included the then Conservative Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and a former chief, who implored us to find their missing relative, one who had never returned home from residential school.
What was happening 13 years ago? Leaders from each and every one of your political parties stood in the House of Commons to offer official apologies for your parties' and for respective governments' roles in imposing and perpetuating the residential school system. Very importantly, each one promised to work together to make things right in the spirit of reconciliation.
We are called together again today in what you have deemed an emergency session. I've been pondering this question: When does the known, when does the atrocious become an emergency? I'm very, very grateful for this expression of urgency but I am dismayed that it's being framed using the poor language that we have to work with, that it's being called “discovery of human remains”. This is not a discovery, which is why I have reminded you of this history. It is the validation of all that we have previously and repeatedly been told and have been saying. These are not statistics. We know the number, but these are not statistics. By the way, these are also not all of the children we know to have died at school. We already knew of 52 in our existing records. These are not statistics; these are little children, some of them possibly now forever unknown but all of them loved and none of them ever forgotten.
What can Canada do?
I've tried to wrap my head around what we might offer back as you go forward with your deliberations. Commissioner Sinclair touched on it already, and I think it's extremely important. First is a continued and sustained non-partisan response and prioritization of resources needed to do this work and all that is being addressed under that broad banner of reconciliation. We have repeatedly said that reconciliation is a non-partisan issue.
Next is accountability, so that we hold ourselves as a country to the international standards and expectations that we would in fact, and we have in the past, advocated for with respect to other countries, including in terms of the consideration of crime and crimes against humanity.
I would ask for honest language and that we not make ourselves comfortable with phrases such as “a sad chapter in our history”. Is it that or is it a human rights atrocity? Is it a social policy mistake or, in this story, was it a breeding ground for crime and abuse? With my appreciation for your committee, your focus and your commitment, for which I'm very grateful, I want you to push for this to be seen more and more as not just an issue for indigenous and northern affairs. It is an issue of human rights and of justice that is of critical importance to all Canadians and to our very principles of democracy.
It is for all of government, and I would say all of governments, as we say repeatedly in our calls to action, and the federal government with its particular ability and influence and powers to convene across all governments. Call to action number 75 in particular is very specific about that. Many of these residential schools and the burial sites are no longer on church-owned properties or even public properties. Many of them are now in private hands, and there's going to be a need for collaboration among private landowners, municipalities, indigenous leaders, provincial governments and territorial ones as well.
Then I would ask for transparency and comprehensive reporting, and, of course, that flows most easily when you have a comprehensive strategy that has been communicated and that we all know about. That way, we can know what progress is being made without having to depend on the government purporting to have done things without anyone else being well aware of them.
I am aware, in fact, of the initiatives that are under way within the indigenous affairs department on this file. Has it advanced enough? Has it advanced fast enough? Are people aware of its existence?
I think these are things we need to communicate thoroughly, frequently and in a comprehensive way, so we understand how these efforts tie in with the other efforts that are all intertwined in our calls to action. I really encourage you and all others not to limit yourselves to the calls to action that number in the 70s.
Act on the obvious. As an example, take number 82, which is outside that bundle in the 70s. It calls for a national monument to honour all students who went to residential schools, knowing that it also is intended to serve as the tomb of the unknown child, if you will, and accepting, as we must, that not all the children we will find will ever be identified. Will we ever know exactly where they came from and who they belonged to?
I would like to end by saying that I would like us to embrace—without making crass comparisons—the valuable lessons of COVID, where we have shown and proven to ourselves that we know how to give urgent response. We know how to do whatever it takes, whatever it costs, when it has to do with the right thing, when it has to do with us taking care of each other, and when it has to do with making sure we are living up to the standards we say we believe in as a country.
I want to end, if I may, where I began, by honouring all the generations of little ones who were taken from their homes and displaced from everything and everyone they knew, and by acknowledging the little children lying in Kamloops. This past week they have risen up and they have begun to be heard across the country. They have brought Canada to the forefront of international attention. It's our responsibility collectively, I think, to continue to listen to them and to make every effort to find the others throughout the land who are still missing.
I look forward to your questions and conversation. Thank you very much.
I'll start. I just want to begin by acknowledging that I'm joining this meeting from the original lands of the Anishinabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples, in the homeland of the Métis.
On behalf of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, I want to say thank you, meegwetch, to the commissioners, whom I was able to walk beside for many years during the commission. I want to thank the honourable chair and the members of the committee for initiating this timely and absolutely necessary study.
My heart goes out to the families of the children who perished at the Kamloops residential school, and all the children who did not return home. This is a time of mourning. It is also an opportunity to finally do the work to locate the children who were taken away, never to return home.
It's our sincere hope that what the Tk’emlúps te Sekwépemc have accomplished in locating 215 children will be a moment where all Canadians embrace the truth and act with genuine commitment towards reconciliation. We hope that out of this tragedy, we will see a concerted national action to locate and honour all first nations, Métis and Inuit children who perished as a result of the residential school system. This is something that is urgently needed and long overdue.
As the former manager of statement gathering during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I heard survivors talk about witnessing the murder and death of children when they were at residential schools. Many parents were never notified of their child's passing, nor told where their children were. We continue to hear these accounts at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The fourth volume of the TRC's final report described cemeteries as being abandoned and unprotected.
The NCTR is the child of the TRC, and we continue to work closely with survivors to ensure our work is guided by their vision and reflects their truth. Five of the 94 calls to action call on governments and Canadian institutions to collaborate with and support our ongoing work.
Call to action 72 specifically calls on the federal government to allocate sufficient resources to the NCTR to allow us to maintain the national residential school student death register. Between the work of the TRC and the NCTR, we have confirmed 4,117 deaths of children in the residential schools. Due to gaps in the records, we have not been able to identify the names of some of these children.
The number of children believed to have gone missing is much higher. Record-keeping for these schools was nowhere near today's standards, nor were the records consistent. Review of the records already in the NCTR's collection is still ongoing, and we will find more children.
A significant key in piecing together the evidence remains with survivors and their families. Even today, survivors continue to come forward with accounts of deaths that they witnessed. Many are in unmarked graves. There are also accounts of bodies that were buried within walls, bodies buried in the hills or by riversides, and bodies that were never found after children died trying to escape from these schools. These sites are in fact crime scenes, and the discovery at Kamloops has triggered a new urgency for survivors and their families to share their truths while they still can.
We do not know what communities will decide concerning repatriating children to their homes. This must be the choice of families and communities. I do, however, want to underscore to the committee the urgency of documenting what survivors witnessed or what families have shared about missing loved ones. We are racing against time. We often hear from survivors that they have fewer tomorrows than they have yesterdays.
We know the Kamloops residential school is one school in over 140 across this country. We are only at the beginning of recognizing the extent of the horrific loss of precious lives. The work ahead is extensive.
I feel it is also important for the committee to recognize that, at this point, there is no ongoing federal commitment to maintain the NCTR's core funding, which is necessary for this vital work to continue.
Since we opened in 2015, we have developed a national student memorial register, created internships with other institutions to expand digital archives, and created greater accessibility of the truths within the records we hold. We also developed a commemoration and healing fund with the guidance of residential school survivors. In developing this fund, survivors prioritized accessibility, because communities deserve to pursue healing and remembrance in ways they feel are appropriate for themselves, without red tape and cumbersome bureaucratic barriers.
I will now ask Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, the chair of the NCTR's governing circle, to talk about what needs to be done going forward.
Thank you to the commissioners, as well, for the work you've done in the past and the truth that you brought to light.
I'd like to thank the standing committee, as well, for the opportunity to speak to you today.
I'd like to say good afternoon. I am a proud member and resident of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in Lake Simcoe.
Together with the Chippewas of Beausoleil and Rama, and the Mississaugas of Alderville, Curve Lake, Hiawatha and Scugog Island, we are all signatories to several treaties signed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries that covered lands in different parts of southern and central Ontario. I'd like to acknowledge that I'm speaking to you from the original lands of the Chippewa today.
First, I also want you to know that both my parents attended residential school and spent 20 years there between them, my father going at the very young age of four, actually being raised there and also suffering the consequences of that through the rest of his life.
I think there are two things that need to be done.
The first is to finally uncover the truth—and I mean truth with a capital T, because we've had a lot of truth-telling, but we have not had the final truth—to finally and completely identify all the children who never returned home. Paramount to this step is having all parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement release all the relevant records needed to document this truth.
The second is upholding indigenous protocols around mourning and ensuring that indigenous communities determine what ceremonies and commemorations are necessary and appropriate to honour the children who died and those who never returned home.
For years, the Canadian government denied indigenous peoples the freedom to practise our sacred ceremonies and cultural practices. The residential school system had a role—if not the largest role—in reinforcing this. Survivors have shared that residential schools had a detrimental impact on their ability to grieve.
It is therefore necessary that communities be supported to bring in knowledge-keepers and undertake the ceremonies that were so long denied to the missing children, their families and their communities. There is an ongoing restoration process that must be supported for our next generations.
I want to underline the TRC’s call to action 76, which says that indigenous peoples must be able to lead in the development of strategies for documenting, maintaining, commemorating and protecting residential school cemeteries.
In the view of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation—and the survivors we depend on to guide us—hiding, damaging, interfering with or destroying the graves of residential school children must be recognized as a crime and prosecuted as such.
In addition, national standards must be put in place concerning the use of investigative technologies, such as ground-scanning radar, to ensure that the privacy of affected families is respected and that any evidence of crimes is not compromised.
Finally, all measures to investigate and protect burial sites must be consistent with the rights of indigenous people in domestic and international law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Yesterday, the federal announced that previously allocated funding for the investigation of gravesites would finally be made available to first nations, Inuit and Métis Nation governments and communities. In making the announcement, the minister told reporters that indigenous peoples weren’t ready for the money to be released before this.
This is quite simply untrue. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, survivors and our partners have been working within frameworks of collaboration, respect for diverse indigenous protocols and adherence to the guidance of survivors and knowledge-keepers for many years—as you heard former commissioner Wilson say.
The federal government has been told time and time again that the need for action is urgent. The national centre and indigenous communities have been desperate to begin meaningful action in locating gravesites, but have been severely underfunded. We've made progress on this journey towards truth, reconciliation and healing, but more truth—a deeper truth—remains.
The Kamloops school brings into focus just how much more work we have to do as a country. This is going to require genuine, sustained action by the Government of Canada to meet the obligations required to right this horrific wrong. Survivors have consistently said that before we can meaningfully talk about reconciliation, we must have truth and we must have healing.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation was cut short in its work, and its support would be very appropriate right now. Until we have identified all the children who never came home from residential schools, we will not know the whole truth. Until those children are finally returned to their families and communities, the healing journey will remain incomplete.
This is a collective task before us. We must do this in a good way without any further delay.
Meegwetch for your time and attention.