A child’s dress is seen on a cross outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Sunday, June 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A child’s dress is seen on a cross outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Sunday, June 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Finding unmarked graves put spotlight on reconciliation in 2021

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation maintains register with over 4,000 children who died

OTTAWA — Murray Sinclair says there was something he found difficult after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report into the history and legacy of residential schools.

It was the ongoing resistance some people still had to believing what had happened in those institutions, he said, even after the six-volume report was released in December 2015.

Six years later, the former chair of the commission says he has noticed a change in the response.

“I can’t say that it’s disappeared, but it’s certainly been overwhelmed by those who are now saying, ‘This should never have happened.’”

Sinclair, like so many other Indigenous leaders, says the discovery by First Nations of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites has led to more people learning, and accepting, what survivors of these institutions experienced.

“That’s moved the credibility of the other issues related to residential schools, and the history of colonialism, and the impact of colonialism up quite a few notches,” he said in a recent interview.

It is estimated no fewer than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend these government-funded, church-run institutions throughout more than a century.

Thousands of residential school survivors described having their cultures suppressed, and enduring physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and malnourishment.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation maintains a memorial register with the names of more than 4,000 children who died at those institutions.

At the end of May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation in British Columbia’s interior made the shocking announcement that ground-penetrating radar had located 215 unmarked graves believed to contain the remains of children who died at a residential school.

Within three weeks, the federal government fulfilled three more of the commission’s 94 calls to action, according to the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led research centre at Ryerson University, which is renaming itself due to its namesake’s role in the residential school system.

That included Parliament marking Sept. 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, amending the wording of Canada’s citizenship oath to include mention of Indigenous rights, as well as the appointment of an Indigenous languages commissioner.

Eva Jewell, research director at the Yellowhead Institute, helped track the progress made to date on the TRC’s recommendations. She says that while it was amazing to see the speed at which Canada moved on three more, it did so under the spotlight of international attention on a genocide

Plus, she added, the calls to action that it fulfilled were largely symbolic.

“If the response by Canada to these revelations was to act on symbols, then what’s it going to take for Canada to work on the substance?”

“It’s a disturbing question,” Jewell says.

From now on, she hopes Sept. 30 becomes a day when people reflect on the outstanding calls to action. One of the barriers to advancing reconciliation, the researcher believes, is Canada’s focus on symbols.

“It’s important to remind Canadians (not to) let reconciliation become a performance.”

“If it continues to just be a performance, Indigenous Peoples are not going to be interested in it, I don’t think. And I think at some point, Canadians will be exhausted by it, too,” she said.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was swept to power in October 2015 and made reconciliation a signature priority. The TRC had issued its calls to action earlier that year and Trudeau, who was an opposition leader at the time, had called for their full implementation.

The findings of the unmarked graves, which prompted both Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians to react with shock, grief and calls for justice has increased the scrutiny of Trudeau’s commitments.

Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, says she has never seen an outpouring of support from Canadians and the corporate world coming into the organization as she has in 2021.

Despite the greater awareness more have around reconciliation, she says the action plan Ottawa unveiled earlier in the year to address the findings of a 2019 national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls fell short of what her organization had hoped.

“There’s a lot of expectation on this side of the table that reconciliation means action. It really means action,” Groulx said.

Among the chronic issues she says must be addressed, including housing and health, is access to clean drinking water on First Nations.

Trudeau missed his own deadline, set during the 2015 election campaign, to end all long-term drinking water advisories within five years. But the pledge to lift them all remains alive, with the government saying work to make it happen is ongoing.

At the beginning of December, Indigenous Services Canada reported 42 of those advisories remain in place in 30 different communities mostly in Ontario, but also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

For Cindy Blackstock, a social worker and longtime advocate for First Nations children, the discovery of unmarked graves resulted in a greater awareness of the more recent inequalities the government has allowed for Indigenous kids today.

She’s among the parties involved in confidential negotiations with Ottawa to secure a settlement agreement that would see the federal government compensate Indigenous children who were separated from their families because of its chronic underfunding of child and family services on-reserve, as well as make systemic changes to child welfare.

The damages were awarded by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, a decision the federal government had appealed in Federal Court.

Negotiations started in the fall after federal ministers announced they hoped it would lead to an out-of-court settlement. Talks are set to expire on Friday. The fall economic statement showed that Ottawa is preparing to pay $40 billion.

Blackstock said she believes that figure would not have been on the table had more people not been paying attention to the case and the issue of child welfare for Indigenous children.

She believes the public got the connection between the government’s role in the residential school system and how those who survived it listed changes to child-welfare at the top of the TRC’s 94 recommendations.

“People really do care about these kids,” Blackstock said.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2021.

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