Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, right, hands a copy of the commission’s main report on Canada’s residential school system to then-Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, centre, as Assembly of First Nations Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde looks on June 2, 2015.
By Gloria Galloway | The Globe and Mail
The commission that has spent the past five years trying to learn the truth about abuses of children at the former Indian residential schools says it is time for the names of all of those students who died, and the locations of their burials, to be known.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was made public on Tuesday. Its main findings – including the determination that what happened behind the walls of the church-run schools amounted to cultural genocide – were released last spring along with a list of 94 “calls to action” to address ongoing problems. What is being put forward now is thousands of pages of contextual details, historical data and voices of survivors.
One section is devoted to the commission’s assertion that the students who perished in the institutions must be identified and their remains located.
“As a parent, as a family, when you’ve lost somebody, you need to know everything about that loss that you can get your hands on,” Murray Sinclair, the chair of the commission, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “You need to know all that can be disclosed, you need to know why they died, where they died, what they died of, and you need to know as well, where they are buried.”
Justice Sinclair says his commission’s final report is about 2,300,000 words long and presents, in tremendous detail, the post-colonization history of Canada’s indigenous peoples.
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“This report is also primarily about residential schools but it has a lot more detailed information to show how residential schools fit into the overall picture of colonialism and oppression – legal, social and political oppression – that went on in Canada from Confederation even to today.”
Among other things, the report discusses the ways child welfare in Canada has failed indigenous people, the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations inmates, and the fact that many Métis survivors of Catholic residential schools are excluded from the settlement that was signed in 2006 with the federal government. And there is also the section on the missing children and the unmarked and untended graves.
Carlie Chase, the executive director of the Legacy of Hope Foundation, which was created to raise awareness about the legacy of the residential schools, is a member of the first generation of her family not to attend one of the residential schools.
“We are always reminded that the survivors today were actually brave children and it is heartbreaking to know that thousands of equally brave children did not survive, that their lives were taken too soon. They died at school,” said Ms. Chase. “So we must be as brave as they were and have the courage to acknowledge the hard truth of their deaths. And that truth is we let them down and we have to do better so it never happens again. So we never have to say there was a death toll at school. For their families to begin their healing, the first part of telling the truth is knowing who those children were.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was provided with records of 3,200 students who died at the schools – most from diseases that spread rapidly in crowded dormitories including tuberculosis and influenza, but also by drowning, fires, accidents, suicide and exposure when they tried to run away. But Justice Sinclair believes the real numbers are actually much higher.
“The government claims that archival records were destroyed through floods and through fires. Church records disappeared, they say, for the same reason,” said Justice Sinclair. “So, whatever one thinks of the truthfulness of that, the reality is that those records are not around for us to check.”
But there are ways to get at the information, he said.
It is clear from the data that is available that most of the deaths occurred between 1885 and 1950. Most provinces, during that period, kept records about those who died within their jurisdictions, including their race, their age, their location and their cause of death. If the names of children in those records were matched with the school attendance records, it would be possible to create a more complete list, said Justice Sinclair.
“That is a much bigger task than we were able to accomplish in our period of time and we were around for five years,” he said. So “we have called upon the government to make the funds available for that project to be undertaken and for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation [which recently opened in Winnipeg] to oversee how that will be done.”
The report says that many of the children who died at the schools were buried on the grounds or in nearby plots because the federal government did not want to pay the cost of shipping the body back to the child’s home community. Few of those grave sites were formally recognized by the province or territory, so they have not been maintained.
In addition, schools were often moved and the exact location of the burial sites, in many cases, has been lost over time. The commission recommends that all levels of government, including aboriginal councils, work with school survivors and landowners to find the graves and to erect markers to honour the deceased children.
“Many traditional belief systems say that, without that proper ceremony, the spirit of that person will never get back to where it is that they are supposed to go,” said Justice Sinclair. “So a lot of communities want to be able to conduct those spirit ceremonies for those who died. And they can’t because they don’t know where the body is, they don’t even know whether the person died – at the school or somewhere else.”
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