Residential school graves research a daunting task
Investigations into cases of students who died or went missing while attending Canada's residential schools are a priority for the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says the group's new research director.
Trent University history professor John Milloy was appointed last month as director of research for the federal commission, which is charged with creating a historical account of the residential school system, helping people heal and encouraging reconciliation.
The Missing Children Research Project was launched in 2008 with the aim of documenting how many children died, went missing or were buried in unmarked graves at residential schools across the country from the late 1800s through much of the 1900s.
However, work on the project was delayed for a year when infighting at the $60-million truth and reconciliation commission led to the resignation of its three commissioners.
Though the restructured commission has yet to come up with a firm budget for the missing children project, Milloy's appointment in January raises hopes that the project has regained momentum.
Milloy has estimated the group will need to obtain and pore over stacks and stacks of paperwork from 60 archival sites across Canada.
"We're hoping to find all of these graveyards," he said. "We're also hoping to find hard evidence of who's buried in those cemeteries so we can provide that information to families. That's why we're doing it — to serve the interests, the healing and the psychological well-being of families of children who went to the schools."
The research is likely to cost millions of dollars and could take years to complete, according to initial estimates of the project proposed by a working group in 2008.
A number of churches who were part of the residential schools settlement agreement are aiding in efforts to uncover the whereabouts of children who died or went missing. But the research presents challenges because even those records that were kept are incomplete.
Susan Roy was hired to go through about 20,000 boxes of United Church documents. The church and its predecessor denominations ran 13 of the 140 government-funded church-run schools. She says her research hasn't turned up many references yet to student deaths or burials, in part because of limitations in the records.
"At one of the schools, they were sent to hospitals so they were discharged from school and then passed away at hospital," Roy said. "The record gets lost in terms of the residential school responsibility for that student. It's a puzzle."
About 150,000 aboriginal children attended Canada's 130 residential schools from the late 1800s to 1996, when the last school closed.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not charged with determining innocence or guilt, but with creating a historical account of the residential schools, helping people to heal and encouraging reconciliation.
With files from The Canadian Press