OTTAWA — The Pallister government has earmarked $2.5 million to help Indigenous groups detect residential school burial sites in Manitoba, saying it’s up to those communities to decide how to proceed.
"We want them to know that we are committed to working with them, not on their behalf but with them, following their direction (on) what their priorities are," Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke told reporters Monday.
For weeks, the Pallister government insisted it would help with searches and commemoration alongside Ottawa and Indigenous leaders, but refused to answer multiple times when journalists and opposition parties asked whether Manitoba would follow other provinces in pledging funding.
Clarke said Indigenous people need to figure out how to proceed.
Some First Nations bands have said they’re ready to immediately hire firms to conduct ground-penetrating radar searches of spots where elders suspect unmarked graves are located.
But others haven’t made any public statements, and Indigenous leaders are consulting with communities.
There are 14 federal Indian Residential Schools in Manitoba that qualified under a 2006 settlement for survivors. Another three federal schools were left out that settlement, and there were another 114 day schools in Manitoba for Indigenous children, who also suffered abuse.
Clarke said the provincial funding might apply to more than the 14 sites that qualified under the settlement.
"There is no agenda at this point; it will be up to the Indigenous leadership, the elders (and) the knowledge keepers," she said.
Clarke added Manitoba’s justice department and vital statistics agency can help Indigenous communities with research.
Yet, she could not say how her government came up with its $2.5-million figure, nor for how many fiscal years it’s been earmarked.
"It’s initial startup money; it’s not designated per site," she said.
"I asked the premier and my colleagues if we could please have some announceable information for Indigenous People’s Day today (Monday) that would be encouraging."
First Nations leaders welcomed the news, especially for leaving the major decisions to Indigenous people.
"We thank the Pallister government for this small but important step towards reconciliation," wrote Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches, on behalf of the Treaty 1 bands, which all sit near Winnipeg.
Meeches’ own community houses a former residential school, which was deemed a national heritage site last year.
"We know there are many more unmarked graves, and it is time for these children to be brought home, with the hope that this is will help bring some healing to our families and communities."
The Manitoba Inuit Association was particularly happy about being included in consultations.
There is only a small Inuit community in Manitoba, yet Inuit children had been relocated from what’s now called Nunavut to a residential school in Churchill.
Some Métis children attended residential schools, but federal officials generally tried to exclude Métis families from the system.