Respect, consent will govern next steps as Quebec mulls searching residential school sites for remains

Elders from Indigenous communities within the province will be part of a "consultation circle" with governments in Quebec and Ottawa to determine what comes next in the search for remains of residential school victims.

Quebec's Indigenous affairs minister has named a facilitator who will stay in contact with Indigenous elders

Ian Lafrenière, Quebec's Indigenous affairs minister, says the province will work with the federal government and consult Indigenous leaders in the province to determine how the search for remains of residential school victims will be carried out. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Elders from Indigenous communities within Quebec will be part of a "consultation circle" with the provincial and federal governments to determine what comes next in the search for remains of residential school victims.

It is one of the actions being taken following the discovery of what are believed to be the remains of an estimated 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

The discovery in late May has sparked questions about what could be found in Quebec if search efforts were carried out.

The final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 identified 3,200 children who died as a result of residential schools, including 38 in Quebec. But Indigenous leaders and other experts believe the true figure could be far higher.

Ian Lafrenière, Quebec's Indigenous Affairs minister, said there is no timeline for when searches would begin. He said the key is making sure the next steps are carried out in a culturally sensitive way, with nothing being done without the elders' consent.

"I want the decisions to be made by the community. They are the ones in the best position to know what is best for them," Lafrenière said during a news conference on Saturday.

"Our job will be to support them."

Ka'nahsohon, left, also known as Kevin Deer, said he was pleased with Saturday's announcement by the Quebec government. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Lafrenière was joined by Marc Miller, the federal Indigenous services minister and Carolyn Bennett, the Crown-Indigenous relations minister.

The news conference began with speeches from three Indigenous elders: Clifford Moar, chief of the Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nations Community of Mashteuiatsh in the Saguenay region, Richard Kistabish, a residential school survivor and Ka'nahsohon from Kahnawake.

"They'll have to engage with the leadership in each community and ask — that's what you do, you ask — 'how can we help?' Then you listen. Then you be of assistance in the best possible way," said Ka'nahsohon, who is also known as Kevin Deer.

"So, to me, this is a great thing that they're announcing today," he added.

Michel Martin, left, has been named as the province's "facilitator", and he will work with Indigenous community leaders to determine what should be done in the search for the remains of residential school victims in Quebec. (Submitted by cabinet of Indigenous Affairs minister)

Province names former Kativik police chief as facilitator

On Saturday, Lafrenière also announced that Michel Martin, a former director for the Kativik Regional Police in northern Quebec, will serve as a facilitator, and communicate directly with different Indigenous leaders.

"[His] mandate will be to help First Nations, help the communities with their choices whether that has to do with research of documents, searches on the field, securing a given area, or [help] with commemorations," said Lafrenière. "We want to have a one-stop shop, one gateway."

Lafrenière said Martin's experience interacting with the government will help him in his new role, whether it's reaching out to the Public Security Ministry or the coroner's office, and he will also stay in touch with the federal government.

Ministers at both levels of government insist that by working together, they want to make things easier for communities.

"There will be absolutely no red tape between the province of Quebec and the government of Canada with respect to any community that chooses its paths and protocols to looking for its lost souls," said Miller, Canada's minister of Indigenous services. 

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

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

With files from Sarah Leavitt