N.W.T. gov't says it will support Indigenous leaders who want to find unmarked burial sites
'I’d love to … take control as a leader, but that is not the right way,' premier says
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
The N.W.T. government is ready to support Indigenous leaders who want to find unmarked grave sites at former residential schools, according to Premier Caroline Cochrane.
That statement comes as the territory, like the rest of Canada, grapples with the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children by the Tk'emlups te Secwepmc First Nation on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Cochrane told the N.W.T. legislature Monday that she wanted to find the territory's lost children "as soon as she saw the news" — but that it is not the place of the territorial government to decide what to do next.
"I'd love … to take control and be a leader, but that is not the right way." - Caroline Cochrane, N.W.T. Premier
"I'd love to say yes, to take control and be a leader, but that is not the right way," Cochrane said, when asked whether she would support a special commission to find any unmarked grave sites.
"I see myself as an equal partner to Indigenous governments … so my commitment is that I will bring it forward at our multilateral table."
Cochrane's recommendation is in line with the final report of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — an intensive study into what the report calls the "cultural genocide" perpetrated in Canada's residential school system.
The schools, open from the 1880s to the late 1990s, forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families to indoctrinate them with Christian and Euro-Canadian values. Survivors describe being physically, mentally and sexually abused. They were not allowed to practice their cultures or speak their languages.
This is not the first time unmarked grave sites have come up in the N.W.T. In 2008, survivors from St. Joseph's school in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., called on the territory to investigate what happened to children who died on site.
'Let's remember this day forever'
Monday's session started with an emotional statement from Speaker Frederick Blake Jr., as he mourned the children's deaths.
"This discovery should not surprise us," he told the legislature. "But even with everything we already know, we can't help but be shocked at the scale of the horrors that occurred."
After a moment of silence, some MLAs took turns sharing their reflections or first-hand experiences with the residential school system.
Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler dedicated her statement to the "horrific legacy" of residential schools, including the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in prison, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and the ongoing apprehension of children from their homes.
"We are still here today, we are strong and resilient, and we will … continue to teach our history, so this is never forgotten," Semmler said.
Jackson Lafferty, MLA for Monfwi, is a residential school survivor. He called the discovery "traumatizing," and asked everyone to pray for the children, their families and everyone living with the lasting legacy of residential schools.
"We need everyone in Canada to know that this history is real," Lafferty said. "Let's remember this day forever."
'The Prime Minister has an obligation'
Indigenous governments won't be working alone if they decide to go ahead, Cochrane said.
She committed to holding Ottawa's feet to the fire as soon as they determine a plan.
"The Prime Minister also has an obligation in my opinion, because it was the government and the Catholic Church that did this to our children," she said.
In 2019, the federal government dedicated $33.8 million over three years to develop a national residential school student death register, in line with the TRC's recommendations.
CBC News reached out to the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to find out how much money was committed specifically to unmarked grave sites in all three territories. A spokesperson said the department is working on a reply.
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
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.
In addition, the NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.
In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason.