How Indigenous voters want political leaders to hold residential school staff to account
Major federal parties were asked how they would bring those responsible to justice
When Jolene Mayer thinks of the future for reconciliation, she sees a clock.
"We're running out of time," said Mayer, who is Métis and lives in The Pas, Man.
Mayer's great-grandmother went to a residential school in Saskatchewan. She says the people who abused her kin, along with thousands of other children, have yet to be brought to justice.
"These people now, if they're still alive — the nuns, the priests, the ministers — they're in their 80s, 90s and we're gonna lose them. They don't deserve a free walk into heaven."
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Mayer said she sees the effects of intergenerational trauma in northern Manitoba take shape in addictions and mental health crises.
That's why she wants to know how the next federal government will hold residential school operators and staff to account and bring some possible closure to her community.
"We need to act now," she said.
CBC News reached out to the major federal political parties campaigning in Manitoba for the Sept. 20 election. Each was asked how it would bring to justice those responsible for residential schools within 21 days of coming to power. Here are their answers, in alphabetical order of party name.
Conservative Party of Canada
The Conservative Party referred to its platform, called Canada's Recovery Plan. In it, the party lays out different points, including developing a plan to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's "calls to action," specifically numbers 71 to 76. They directly address residential school burial sites, including calling for governments to release records, fund the work to uncover graves and ensure all work is led by Indigenous communities.
Green Party of Canada
The Green Party said it would provide funding for healing centres and for the work to identify missing children and unmarked graves. The party said it would call on Pope Francis to apologize on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for its role in operating the schools and look for ways the federal government could hold different religious institutions accountable. The Green Party said it would also formally recognize the high rates of Indigenous youth in foster and custody systems, and would support providing access to Jordan's Principle to non-status First Nations children who live off reserve.
Liberal Party of Canada
The Liberal Party reaffirmed its promise to appoint a special interlocutor who would partner with Indigenous communities to uncover unmarked graves, stating it would "quickly establish" the position if re-elected. The party said it would also provide support for communities doing the work, fund the TRC with dedicated support for unmarked graves and endeavour to build a monument in Ottawa to honour residential school survivors and the children who never came home. The Liberals also mentioned the work they've done since 2016, including urging the Pope to apologize.
New Democratic Party
The NDP said it would commit to fully funding the search for gravesites at former residential schools. It would also fund the maintenance and protection of the graves in whatever manner the communities would like. The NDP also said it would appoint a special prosecutor to "pursue those who inflicted great harm on Indigenous children" in residential schools. The party would also require churches and governments to hand over records that would identify any remains or those who are responsible for the harm done.
People's Party of Canada
The PPC sent a link to its platform portion regarding First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. There is no mention of reconciliation or residential schools — the platform briefly describes how it might collaborate with different communities on living conditions, natural resources and the economy.
'Hold the Catholic Church accountable'
Justice can look different for different people, said Danielle Morrison, a second-year law associate at the Headingley, Man., office of Winnipeg-based law firm Cochrane Saxberg LLP.
Morrison, who is from Anishinaabeg of Naongashiing in Treaty 3, in northwestern Ontario, works in child protection, Indigenous and corporate law.
"A great starting point is to hold the Catholic Church accountable," she said.
She noted the Pope's lack of apology for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools, records that have yet to be released from local churches and the millions of dollars that were supposed to go to residential school survivors but were instead spent on legal fees.
Morrison said the federal government should compel churches to release records. Another idea she's heard from different community members is to petition Ottawa to remove the church's charitable status.
"To be frank, the best way to hit them is hitting where it hurts, and that's their bank," she said.
"If they can't take charitable donations, then they're not able to spend that money in the ways that they have been. Maybe it'll help them think twice about where they should have been spending money in the first place — fulfilling those promises that they made in the residential settlement agreement."
Morrison's father was a residential school survivor. He died around the time she started working with other survivors to file compensation claims — an experience she said was integral to her becoming a lawyer. She said she hopes the next federal government will put action behind its words of support for First Nations who are uncovering unmarked graves.
"These are our lives. It has been my life since I was born, and I find it really frustrating that while we're still trying to pick up the pieces, political leaders are now making it into a campaign," Morrison said.
"I hope that the leaders, when they're commenting and answering these questions about how they're going to hold the Catholic Church and hold the government accountable — all these atrocities of the past that still have lingering impacts today — I hope that they think. I hope that they come up with some very meaningful answers."
Hope for healing through supports, not jail time
For others, justice doesn't involve Canada's justice system at all.
"I don't think we're a punitive people," said Wayne Mason, executive director of Wa-Say Healing Centre in Winnipeg.
"If they believe that they did something wrong, then they should try and make amends. It doesn't mean throwing them in jail or anything like that. We will be just as bad as them if we did that.... They can make amends by helping us to do things in a good way."
Mason is from Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba and a member of the turtle clan. He's been given the spirit names Running Buffalo, Brown Buffalo Warrior and Standing Strong Earth Man.
Wa-Say helps residential school survivors reconnect with their Indigenous identities before helping them heal from their experiences as children.
"We have ceremonies here, right in this room. Pipe ceremonies, naming ceremonies. We get their clans, their colours," Mason said. "It helps them to feel good about themselves. Once they feel good and want to know about their history, we help them understand what happened over the years."
In part, making amends means continuing funding for programs like Wa-Say, Mason said. It also means supporting the work of Indigenous-led programs by letting them be Indigenous-led, with no government influence.
"We know who we are. We know what we need to do. We just need to have people on the other side to understand that and agree to that," he said.
"I'm hoping that with the new government — whether it's Liberal, Conservative, NDP or whoever — I hope that those agreements and plans to work together continue."
Still, Mason said reconciliation is multi-faceted and that acknowledgement from the Catholic Church and an apology from the Pope could help some people move forward.
"Hopefully someday he will," Mason said. "That will help that healing."
This story is the result of a CBC Manitoba engagement journalism project. We listened to BIPOC voters in Manitoba about their views on the 2021 federal election and then pursued stories that mattered the most.