TRC commissioners call on Ottawa to end delays in implementing calls to action

Two commissioners from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission say Ottawa needs to act more urgently to respond to its calls to action — and creating a national monument for residential school survivors would be a start.

Urgent action required to show respect for survivors and missing children, commissioners say

Shoes and flowers were laid at a memorial on Parliament Hill to honour the estimated 215 children whose remains were found buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Two commissioners from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission say Ottawa needs to act more urgently to respond to its calls to action — and creating a national monument for residential school survivors would be a start. 

Among the commission's 94 recommendations, number 81 calls on the federal government to work with survivors, organizations and other parties to the residential school settlement agreement to create a publicly accessible, highly visible memorial in Ottawa.

The commissioners say it would serve as a national gathering place to honour survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

But six years after giving Ottawa that direction, commissioner Wilton Littlechild said the recommendation is one of 22 calls to action that are "stuck." 

Littlechild said he hopes the discovery of the remains of an estimated 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, according to a preliminary report from Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, will push the country to finish implementing the commission's work. 

"There's a call on us to redouble our efforts," said Littlechild, who is the honorary chief in his home community of the Maskwacis Crees in Alberta.

Monument essential to prevent denial

Five of the calls to action, 72 to 76, addressed how the government can respond to missing children and burial grounds.

It included calls for the government to help find and identify remains, maintain a student death registry and commemorate. 

The Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs is starting a new study today to take a look at these specific recommendations following the revelation in Kamloops. 

Right to left, Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair, Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild and Commissioner Marie Wilson listen to a speaker as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission is released on Dec. 15, 2015, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Littlechild, who spent 14 years attending three residential schools, always had an empty chair beside him at hearings to represent those who never came home. He said a monument needs to be built to prevent denial. 

"We don't want anybody to come in and say, 'Well, those residential schools they talked about, they didn't exist,' or, 'The children that were found — that didn't happen,'" Littlechild said.

In an interview with CBC News, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said a group of survivors are working on a monument. 

Bennett said proposed funding from the 2021 budget, which sets aside $13.4 million over five years and $2.4 million each year after that period for residential school commemoration, can start being "unlocked" now that MPs have passed Bill C-5, which establishes a national day for truth reconciliation.

"So many communities coast-to-coast-to-coast are absolutely motivated to make sure that this is done in a good way and that all of the families and survivors feel supported," said Bennett, as work is done to build toward a national commemoration day set for Sept. 30.

But commissioner Marie Wilson said there's still no steering committee structure in place to see the work done by survivors through. 

Need for independent oversight body

Wilson said the survivors need to be able to have some peace knowing that the courage it took to share their truths made a positive difference. 

"We need to be delivering on that," Wilson said. "We are losing daily many of the experts to this residential school story, which is the former students themselves — the survivors."

Wilson said work needs to be expedited, especially since there were an estimated 80,000 to 85,000 survivors when the commission began in 2008. Now, she said, there's half as many.

WATCH | Ottawa commits to funding searches at former residential school sites:

Ottawa pledges financial support as UN joins calls for action over residential schools

1 year ago
Duration 2:51
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. The federal government has pledged access to financial support for other First Nations to search for unmarked remains near former residential schools, but some — including a former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner and the UN human rights office — say Ottawa needs to move faster and more decisively.

Wilson said a monument would serve as the burial site for the unknown child, just as there is one for the unknown soldier. 

"There are some children, including, sadly, among the little ones from Kamloops, who may never be identified," Wilson said. "We may never know exactly what was their name, who was their family, where did they come from." 

The commissioners also reiterated the need for the government to move on recommendation number 53 to enact legislation for a national council for reconciliation, an independent oversight body that would ensure accountability. 

"There's no one monitoring across the country what is going on in terms of reconciliation," Littlechild said. 

"It's very critical that we establish that national council for reconciliation as soon as possible, so that we have a better snapshot, even on a daily basis, of exactly where we are with the calls to action."   

Money starting to flow for searches

In 2019, Ottawa set aside more than $33 million over three years to respond to calls 72 to 76. 

Over the last year, the government said it hosted 16 virtual consultation sessions with more than 140 participants from Indigenous organizations. 

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation received $2.6 million to develop and maintain a student death register, and the government said it's working with the centre to develop a record of burial sites.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced on Wednesday that Indigenous communities can start applying for funding to conduct searches on the grounds of former residential schools for remains. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Bennett announced on Wednesday that communities can begin applying for the remaining $27.1 million to conduct searches on the grounds of former residential school sites and commemorate the lost children.

"Some people think, can't you just hire a firm and go and find them all?" Bennett said. "The communities have been very clear: they have to do it in their way."

The commissioners say there should be searches to find the missing and bring them home. 

"This is a story about Canada's children," Wilson said.

"This is a story about something our country allowed to happen to children and in fact, enabled to happen to children, through its policies and laws and intentions and its lack of oversight and lack of supervision."

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of 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.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.