Murray Sinclair calls for inquiry into residential school burial sites, more support for survivors
TRC identified names of 3,200 children who died, but real number likely much higher, says former chair
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Retired senator Murray Sinclair says his biggest concern after Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said it found indications of possible children's remains on the grounds of a former B.C. residential school last week is how to support people who have been retraumatized by the events.
"I've spent most of the last three or four days on the phone with survivors who call me because they're so emotionally distraught at the revelation," said Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 2008 to document the impacts of residential schools on Indigenous people in Canada.
He said he estimates he's fielded up to 400 calls in recent days.
"I just sit and listen," he said. "There's not much else we can do, just sit and listen while they cry. And there's many tears."
Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey conducted by a specialist in ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of around 215 children could be buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The TRC's final report in 2015 recorded 3,201 deaths, though at the time Sinclair estimated that at least 6,000 children, if not more, died as a result of their school experience, based on his work with the Commission.
Speaking to The Current, Sinclair said the true figure "could be in the 15-25,000 range, and maybe even more."
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools between the 1870s and 1990s, a project of church and government established to assimilate them. The commission described the system as "cultural genocide."
News of the remains is triggering residential school survivors with memories of their peers being injured or dying at the institutions, Sinclair told The Current's Matt Galloway. Many survivors are also losing what little hope they had that Indigenous children who went missing during the residential school era could still be alive somewhere.
"I really think that we still need to look at establishing survivor healing programs, survivor healing centres, so that they have a place to go in order to be able to [come] together from time to time, to get through this experience," he said.
Religious groups withholding records: expert
Sinclair echoed calls from around the country for a proper inquiry into every former residential school to determine how many more burial sites there may be.
"I suspect, quite frankly, that every school had a burial site," Sinclair said.
WATCH | Murray Sinclair says more burial sites could be discovered:
While the TRC already recorded the names of about 3,200 children who died at the schools, work needs to be done to identify other children who may have been buried, where they are buried, and to determine what happened to them, Sinclair said.
The TRC's final 2015 report released 94 calls to action — six of which specifically pertained to child deaths or cemeteries, including that records of children who died in care be released; that families be informed of where their deceased children were buried; and that governments, churches and other groups support Indigenous communities in protecting residential school burial sites.
But Sinclair said church organizations and the federal government have so far been reluctant to fund adequate research into this documentation. And he's deeply concerned that important records of what happened at residential schools could be lost forever.
I want those documents to be maintained forever, just like we maintain the documents of what happened to the victims of the Holocaust.- Murray Sinclair
In 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that thousands of sensitive records pertaining to abuses at the institutions are confidential and can be destroyed after Sept. 19, 2027, unless survivors choose to preserve them.
"I want those documents to be maintained forever, just like we maintain the documents of what happened to the victims of the Holocaust," Sinclair said.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-Kwe) said the withholding of, or lack of access to, residential school records is a roadblock to the work she does.
She's the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, which helps survivors access information about their time at the schools.
According to Turpel-Lafond, the Grey Nuns of Montreal are still withholding 3,000 photos and litigation records, while the Oblates of Grandin in St. Albert, Alta., are withholding diary-like records of daily life at the former residential school there — revelations CBC News reported on in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Sisters of Saint Anne in Victoria, B.C., have refused to sign a waiver allowing Ottawa to transfer the group's records relating to the schools, she said, because they claim there are "inaccuracies" in the residential school narrative.
You shouldn't be investigating your own genocide. It's just not the way the law works, and it's not the honourable thing for Canada.- Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-Kwe)
The Current requested interviews with Canadian Cardinals Thomas Collins and Michael Czerny, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Michael Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, and Bishop Joseph Nguyen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamloops. No one agreed to be interviewed.
Turpel-Lafond blames the Canadian government for failing to step in.
"Let's just not forget here, like [survivors] had to sue the government and churches and had to advance the abuse and trauma that they experienced," she said.
"You shouldn't be investigating your own genocide. It's just not the way the law works, and it's not the honourable thing for Canada."
International law requires investigation: Turpel-Lafond
Turpel-Lafond said she wants the federal government to ensure that all missing residential school children are identified; all records on residential schools — including government records — are secured; and that all school burial sites are legally protected. The prime minister should also appoint a special rapporteur to "establish a guardianship structure of some kind" at the Kamloops school, she said.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said what happened to children in Kamloops and at other residential schools is "the fault of Canada." He said the government would help preserve gravesites and uncover potentially more unmarked burial grounds at other residential schools.
Turpel-Lafond said the Canadian government is required to do so under international humanitarian law.
"When you find a site with unmarked and undocumented burials of human remains, that is immediately a crime scene," explained Turpel-Lafond, who is also a law professor and former judge. "That means that there has to be a proper investigation of what's there, who is buried there, under what circumstances."
As for what Canadians can do, she said it's important they support Indigenous people "without reservation," and speak up to encourage a full investigation into exactly who the missing and buried children were. The TRC has already started a memorial registry of children who died at the schools, Turpel-Lafond explained, but in some cases, the names of those children could not be found.
- Further searches of residential school sites are next stage of healing for some Indigenous communities
"I'll just make it very concrete for you. One child was simply referred to [as], and I quote, 'Indian Girl No. 237," she said.
"If the Indian Girl No. 237 is at Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory ... there's no way any Canadian should let us … rest easy without knowing … who is that girl, and how are we going to find out who she is? Who are her people, and how did she get there?"
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.
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Kate Cornick, Ines Colabrese and Jodie Martinson.
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- An earlier version of this story stated that the TRC documented the deaths of more than 6,000 students. It has been updated to attribute that estimate to a 2015 interview with Murray Sinclair.Feb 02, 2022 2:14 PM ET