Newly formed council will guide Indigenous-led searches of former residential schools, province says

A new council with representatives from federal, provincial and municipal governments will work with Indigenous organizations to oversee the search for children who died at residential schools in Manitoba.

All levels of government and Indigenous organizations collaborate on council

Older black-and-white photo of a building in a field with a few trees and a car out front.
The Fort Alexander Residential School closed in 1970. (George Harris Fonds/Archives of Manitoba)

A new council co-chaired by the Manitoba government and the Southern Chiefs Organization will provide advice and guidance on supporting searches for the bodies of children who died while attending residential schools, the province announced Wednesday.

The council, which is meant to serve in an advisory role, provide guidance and advice, will include representatives from all levels of government, Indigenous governments and community groups, the news release said. 

Council members include the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

Brenda Gunn, the academic and research director for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, believes the creation of the council is quite important.

"This council is really significant because it is bringing together Indigenous governments and organizations to really oversee and support the work that First Nations, Métis, [and] Inuit communities are engaging in to identify unmarked burials," she told CBC News.

A ceremony will be held in the future to find a proper name for the council that best represents the work they will do.

The former McKay Residential School is pictured. (Manitoba Historical Society)

So far, the council's preliminary discussions have identified five guiding principles for their work: 

  • The search for missing children must be Indigenous-led and supported by all levels of government.
  • Families and survivors must be at the heart of all search efforts.
  • Health supports are essential for the wellness of all those engaged in the work.
  • Remains of the children and their burial locations will be protected at all times.
  • Commemorations are essential for healing, truth telling and education.

Health supports are particularly key, Gunn says, especially since the work that is being conducted comes with trauma.

"We must ensure that as we engage in effort to identify unmarked burials, that we are taking care of the health — including the mental health — of survivors and families and all those who are engaged in the work because of the way in which this work, for many people involved, is profoundly personal," she said.

"Many people have direct connections, either as a survivor, as an intergenerational survivor. And as we engage in this work, we must make sure we're taking care of all of those involved."

Gunn says part of the centre's work has been to support communities in commemoration and healing, which aligns with the fifth guiding principle.

To remember and address the the history and legacy of residential schools is work that has to be part of the process when the centre looks at identifying unmarked graves, she added.

Different communities engage in different processes on how this process is conducted, Gunn said. But she noted that the approach needs to be Indigenous-led.

"The residential school system was part of a larger assertion of colonial control over Indigenous people based on racist and paternalistic ideas of Indigenous peoples not being capable of making their own decisions," she said. "It's really important that efforts to address the harm of residential schools really promote self-determination."

To date, the provincial government has committed $2.5 million to support the search efforts.

Six First Nations in Manitoba have started ground-penetrating radar searches at former residential schools, including McKay Residential School in Dauphin, Fort Alexander Residential School in Sagkeeng First Nation and the Brandon residential school.

With files from Jenn Allen