Ontario coroner says it's possible deaths tied to residential schools were missed, reviewing decades-old cases

Ontario's chief coroner says "it's possible" unmarked graves linked to residential schools have been missed, and is setting up a team to review death investigations from past decades to see whether any should be reopened.

Office reflecting on processes 'in light of unmarked burials' near residential schools

Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario's chief coroner, says a team will review decades-old death cases to determine if any could be linked to residential schools. (CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Ontario's chief coroner says "it's possible" unmarked graves linked to residential schools have been missed, and is setting up a team to review death investigations from past decades to see whether any should be reopened.

"I've asked for … files from human remains over the past number of years to be retrieved and we're going to look through those to see if, in fact, there are investigations that should be done now, based upon what we've seen," said Dr. Dirk Huyer.

This latest development comes after an organization representing survivors of the Mohawk Institute Residential School announced remains believed to be those of someone under age 14 had been uncovered near the facility.

The coroner's office initially led the investigation after the remains were discovered in Brantford, Ont. in August 2020, but determined they were "not modern and do not have any forensic value," according to a police media release.

Now, Huyer says his office has taken lead on the investigation again, acknowledging it's "very fair" to say the revelations of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada over the summer played a role in the decision to do so.

"Anything they can do to go back and look at those records and files and see where they may have failed in their investigation is obviously welcome," said Kimberly Murray, executive lead for the Survivor's Secretariat, set up to oversee a search of the residential school property.

But, she pointed out, the secretariat has questions about how the coroner or police determine whether something is of forensic value.

"There's no real, clear definition of what that means," she said, adding it's her understanding the decision is based on the age of the remains.

That means an investigation can become "archeology and just a historic burial and it doesn't matter if they're kids that could potentially have been murdered in a residential school," said Murray.

Unmarked grave found in August 2020

It's not yet known when the person whose remains were found near the residential school was buried, whether they were Indigenous or if they had any direct connection to the facility.

The Survivor's Secretariat has stressed the need for caution with so many unknowns, but said the likely age of the person and their proximity to the 202 hectares (500 acres) that once made up the residential school property, are cause for concern.

The coroner's office first became involved in the investigation after the remains were found near Glenwood Drive in August last year while work crews were installing utilities, said Huyer.

Remains believed to be those of someone under age 14 were uncovered in the summer near the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Staff carried out an early evaluation and didn't identify "significant concerns of foul play," so the probe was turned over to the Registrar of Burial Sites, War Graves, Abandoned Cemeteries and Cemetery Closure, he said.

At that point, the coroner stated the remains did not have any forensic value, meaning no criminal or further death investigation would take place.

Huyer said the term was used in the past by the office when weighing whether the police should be involved in an investigation. One of the key factors was the potential age of the bones.

"If the remains appear to be many years older, over 50 years of age, then we had followed a process that if they were of a significant age and there was no obvious injuries ...  then we would turn the investigation over to the registrar."

Now the coroner's office is working to "revise" its processes, including the use of the term, "especially in light of unmarked burials at or near residential schools," said Huyer.

Part of that reflection involves reviewing past cases, including those referred to the registrar, to see if any with potential links to deaths at residential schools were missed, though he said he did not know the number of cases his office has investigated at or near that type of facility.

"At this point, I've asked, as a starting point, for all of the files from the 1980s and those are all in my hands right now … and we're thinking about the team we'll build to do this work," Huyer said, adding the effort began this past summer as news of unmarked burials across the country dominated headlines and national discussion.

Community raised concerns about remains

Murray pointed out the review will need to go much further back. Indigenous communities and survivors have also been talking about unmarked burials for a "very long time," not just the past summer, she said.

In recent years, two other instances of human remains were found near the Mohawk Institute site — one on Oxbow Road and another on Brikett Lane. Murray said she's brought those to Huyer's attention.

She also said it was the Six Nations archeologists who flagged concerns about the most recent case to the coroner after it was determined they were of a youth.

"It was the community that brought it back to the coroner's attention; it wasn't the coroner's bringing it to his own attention."

The steps of the Woodland Cultural Centre, which today occupies the former Mohawk Residential School, was covered in stuffed animals and signs this summer. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Children from Six Nations were sent to facilities across the province, not just the Mohawk Institute, and it's important all potential burial sites with connections to residential schools be reviewed, she added.

Murray suggested provincial or federal laws may need to be changed to protect residential school burial grounds, wherever they're found.

"It's really important that we find and recover all of them."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.