OTTAWA — Retired Manitoba senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is calling for an independent investigation to examine all potential burial sites near former residential schools.
Sinclair also told a House of Commons committee Thursday the Trudeau government had not acted with urgency to have these sites examined, but cautioned he did not want the issue to become politicized.
The former judge argues a probe should not be run by the federal government, but should be overseen by a parliamentary committee that will ensure it is done in a proper way.
"It's good for Canada to understand that we still have to come to terms with a lot of what occurred during the residential school era, and that there are a lot of uncovered truths out there that we need to look at," he said.
Sinclair said there are so many questions that remain to be answered, including how many burial sites exist in Canada, where they are located, and how many children are buried in them.
He noted the TRC urged governments to work with churches and the Indigenous communities to locate burial sites and list the names of children who died.
"Nothing has been done by the government to follow that up," he said.
"We think that's a sad commentary upon the commitment the government has or lack of commitment the government has to trying to close the story."
Sinclair told media Wednesday he estimated there are 15,000 to 25,000 bodies at residential schools sites.
On Thursday, he testified churches which ran residential schools have not yet shared records of the deaths of Indigenous children with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, particularly the Catholic Church.
In the past week, Sinclair said he had heard from about 200 residential school survivors who have shared their grief, anger and frustration over the news from Kamloops, B.C., of an unmarked mass grave.
The extensive media coverage has been a huge trigger for them, he said.
Sinclair said nothing heals survivors more than talking with other survivors, but most of them are unable to do so because of a lack of programming.
Fellow TRC commissioner Marie Wilson said those who were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children should be brought to justice.
"Accountability, so that we hold ourselves up as a country to the international standards and expectations that we would in fact, and have in the past, advocated for other countries, including the consideration of crime and crimes against humanity," she told the parliamentary committee.
"It is an issue of human rights and of justice, of critical importance."
Justice Minister David Lametti has said he is open to the idea of criminalizing interference with residential school burial sites.
Meanwhile, Sinclair said the RCMP in British Columbia has launched an investigation into the Kamloops site, but he criticized the approach of officers.
"They are simply intimidating people rather than helping them," he said.
"They should not be pursuing those who are revealing information. They should, in fact, be looking for those records. They should be looking at what it is that we do know, as opposed to trying to pursue witnesses."
Staff Sgt. Bill Wallace of the Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP said after a May 31 meeting with band officials, the RCMP confirmed the band remains the lead and the force will continue to support it in determining next steps.
"The Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP has attended the site, participated in meetings, and will continue working closely with the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc community leaders in determining the next steps and the best way to be involved in any investigative avenues explored going forward, while at the same time being supportive, respectful, and culturally sensitive to the Indigenous communities that are impacted," Wallace said in a statement.
A file has been opened and any further actions will be taken in consultation with the First Nation, he said.
— The Canadian Press, Free Press staff