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National gathering charts path forward for unmarked grave searches at former residential school sites

A national gathering this week will help with next steps, as Indigenous communities across the country grapple with the task of searching for unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

About 350 First Nation, Metis, and Inuit leaders, community members and survivors came together

An empty chair sits at this week's national gathering on unmarked burials, to represent the children who didn’t make it home from Indian residential schools. (Tanya Talaga)

A national gathering this week will help with next steps, as Indigenous communities across the country grapple with the task of searching for unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

About 350 First Nation, Metis, and Inuit leaders, community members and survivors gathered on Treaty 6 territory in Edmonton this week, for the first national gathering on unmarked burials. 

Coroners, experts in ground penetrating radar and medical experts were also at the event, which was aimed at supporting communities in the search and recovery of missing children. 

Journalists were also invited to attend to help digest and share the information being shared, including Anishinaabe author Tanya Talaga.

'So daunting'

The gathering was important, she said, because communities are still facing so many unknowns, as they try to do the work respectfully, and in a culturally appropriate manner that honours the lives and the memories of the children who never made it home.   

"The job of finding the unmarked graves is so daunting in so many communities, so it was a really good idea to bring everyone together so we can teach each other how you take that step forward," Talaga said. 

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wrapped up its hearings and testimonies with a six volume report, an entire volume was dedicated solely to missing children and unmarked burials. 

The commission heard from thousands of survivors and had identified 3,200 deaths. The practice was not to send the bodies of the students who died at school home. Many families were never notified that their loved one had died or where they were laid to rest. The commission concluded there was a need for a national strategy for the documentation and protection of residential burial sites.

Topics at this week's gathering included records and archives, search technology, and discussions around justice. 

Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe author who attended this week's first national gathering on unmarked burials. (Vancouver Writers Festival)

"In each of these sessions you have a lot of trauma, you have a lot of lived experience, you have a lot of survivors, you have people that have intergenerational trauma," Talaga said.

"We also had a speaker from Guatemala who spoke of their forensic efforts looking at more than 8,000 graves."

Even through the heaviness of the topics, Indigenous peoples were still able to lean on each other for support, and to find some levity in the gathering, she said, pointing to a moment when children were invited to dance and drum.

Putting names to the numbers

Garden River First Nation Chief Andy Rickard made the trek to Treaty 6 land from his community in northern Ontario.

"It's heavy, in terms of some of the stories you're hearing from the survivors but also it's an opportunity for sharing best practices of what communities are going through in terms of the processes," Rickard said. 

"It's about lending support and getting an idea of what communities are doing because there's no playbook of how it's going to unfold within our communities. I think this is an opportunity for communities to get an understanding of what lies ahead." 

One of the more impactful moments Rickard felt was during a presentation from one of the communities further along in the work than his own. They not only shared the factual data, but also the children's names. 

"When you actually see the names of the individuals, it really humanises our people and it kinda puts an identity to the people that have been lost, that did not come home and it really hits you in the heart because there were a lot of names on that presentation," he said. "Then you understand the magnitude that this is just one location, let alone the 150 plus [Indian Residential] schools that exist in and around Canada". 

The gathering, which started on Monday, wrapped up on Wednesday. It was hosted by Kimberley Murray, who has been tasked with the role of special interlocutor by the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian residential schools. 

Seven more gatherings are slated to take place over the next two years, at locations across the country.


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or 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.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jolene Banning is an Anishinaabe journalist living and working from her traditional territory of Fort William First Nation. She is a producer for Makwa Creative, an Indigenous-owned production company and one of the hosts of Auntie Up!, the podcast for, by, and about Indigenous women. Her storytelling explores Anishinaabe resilience and culture, and how these push back against settler colonialism. She produces a national column for CBC Radio called Stories from Anemki Wajiw, which highlights Indigenous knowledge and relationships.

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