OTTAWA — Last week's discovery of an unmarked burial ground containing the remains of children in British Columbia could spark hundreds of searches across the Prairies, as Manitoba chiefs call on governments to probe the full death toll of residential schools.

OTTAWA — Last week's discovery of an unmarked burial ground containing the remains of children in British Columbia could spark hundreds of searches across the Prairies, as Manitoba chiefs call on governments to probe the full death toll of residential schools.

"The world deserves to know the truth of what exactly happened," said Southern Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.

"We shouldn’t be hiding from the truth."

Last Thursday, a B.C. band made global headlines when it announced that a ground-radar search had found evidence of 215 children buried in unmarked graves near a residential school in Kamloops. Those searches generally involve using a machine that resembles a lawnmower to scan the ground using radiowaves, which can reveal anything from metallic objects to soil disturbances that suggest the presence of a skeleton.

Since the discovery, bands across Canada have called for similar searches, arguing families can’t heal until the extent of a system created to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into western society is known.

Crisis line

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The National Residential School Crisis Line for survivors can be accessed 24/7 at: 1-866-925-4419

Sagkeeng First Nation had a residential school from 1905 to 1970, at which point it became a day school. In 1928, two boys drowned when they attempted to flee by boat, but locals know of many more deaths and at least one area where bodies could be buried.

"We need to get to the truth," Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson said Monday, before attending a sacred fire.

The reserve, 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, hadn’t issued a formal request as of Monday afternoon, but Henderson said his First Nation wants governments to pay for a thorough radar search of the grounds near the school.

"This is part of healing," he said, arguing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its final report in 2015, did not answer all of his community's questions.

Also Monday, the northern Cross Lake band wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking his government to "fund an exhaustive, forensic search of the grounds of the formal residential school on our territory," including to identify the bodies.

"There must be truth for there to be reconciliation," the band wrote.

The federal government has so far supported efforts by Winnipeg researchers to follow the paper trail generated by the commission.

PM supports burial-site standards

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’d support a co-ordinated approach to searching for graves at residential sites.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’d support a co-ordinated approach to searching for graves at residential sites.

Academics have urged Ottawa to set standards, so that searching through burial sites produces comparable data between provinces, and that the evidence could stand up in a legal process.

The prime minister seemed open to that idea.

“A standardized approach makes a lot of sense, but of course we will work with the province and territories to make sure that we’re all doing the right thing,” Trudeau said Monday, in response to questions from the Free Press.

In Manitoba, Southern Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said he’d welcome evidence that he argues could put people behind bars.

“We need to know the names of the people who perpetrated these acts,” said Daniels, arguing clergy and government officials should have been jailed based on evidence uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission found Manitoba children often died from abuse and running away. But they also died from diseases like tuberculosis that weren’t managed using what was known at the time about science and nutrition.

Scores of children died in fires that were sometimes caused by lax regulations and locked fire escapes, but 37 fires were “suspected or proven to be deliberately set,” according to the TRC final report, including a handful in Manitoba.

— Dylan Robertson

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based at the University of Manitoba, inherited roughly five million records from government and church officials, of which about a million have been processed.

So far, six archivists have brought the known number of children who died while attending residential school in Canada to 4,117.

That includes at least 220 children who died while under the care of 13 schools in Manitoba, as recent as 1974.

A 2014 academic study suggests a Brandon trailer park now sits atop a residential school cemetery, while a report last month says the abandoned Birtle school buildings likely sit next to a burial site.

Those findings only involve the 139 residential schools that fell under a federal compensation scheme; there were many more day, mission and industrial schools in Canada.

"There are approximately 400 to 500 different areas of unmarked grave sites across the country," said Raymond Frogner, the archives head for that centre.

"This is the start, the tip of the iceberg."

Trudeau suggested Monday his government is willing to help pay for searches.

Thorough search needed at residential school sites

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The former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Andrew Snucins / The Canadian Press)
The former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Andrew Snucins / The Canadian Press)

Posted: 7:00 PM May. 31, 2021

Indigenous Canadians were half-expecting the horrifying discovery that was announced last week: hundreds of Indigenous children lie buried in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

If there’s one such burial ground in Kamloops, you may be sure there are others. Canada operated about 139 different Indian residential schools between 1883 and the 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Judge Murray Sinclair interviewed many of the survivors from among the 150,000 people who attended these schools.

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"We will be there to work with communities on the things they need, and the things we all need to know," Trudeau said in response to questions from the Free Press.

"We are looking for how we can support Indigenous communities in their grief and in their request for answers."

Since taking office in 2015, Trudeau has allocated $45 million for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Frogner said that cash has gone to everything from building a platform to storing records, and responding to requests from survivors.

He said additional funding is needed to hire more researchers to go through the four million documents.

On Monday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe echoed a unanimous call from that province’s chiefs to have Ottawa immediately probe all residential school sites, saying the province could help with searches.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has not issued a unanimous call for these searches.

In the Manitoba legislature, the Pallister government gave consent to an NDP request for a debate on whether to ask that all residential school sites be inspected for unmarked graves.

The debate did not produce a vote, but each party spoke about the horror of the discovery in B.C., and said Manitoba survivors need support to cope with being re-traumatized by the news.

Frogner said it will be a lengthy, complex process to get even a rough picture of how many children died at residential schools. Ottawa only implemented a formal process to report deaths in 1935. Half of those records don’t indicate a cause of death, while 23 per cent don’t include a gender.

"You are what you choose to remember, but you are also what you choose to forget," Frogner said.

"We're being challenged to remember something very difficult."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca