The burial sites of Indigenous children who died in Ontario residential schools will be identified and commemorated, says Premier Doug Ford.
“There is painful but necessary work ahead, and we must confront what happened for reconciliation to be achieved,” Ford said Tuesday as he announced the three-year, $10-million effort.
“Like all Ontarians, I was heartbroken by the news of a burial site containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops,” the premier said.
“That’s why our government is partnering with Indigenous communities to address the loss of generations who are no longer with us, and the continued loss experienced by residential school survivors and their families.
“As we advance meaningful reconciliation, it is important that all of us continue to deepen our collective understanding of the legacy of the Indian Residential School system.”
Ford said some of the funding would also go toward “culturally appropriate, trauma-informed mental health supports” for residential school survivors and their families.
But NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa (Kiiwetinoong) said $10 million “is a drop in a bucket” of what is needed.
“We welcome it, but I hope it’s just only the beginning. We need to be able to move forward and try and address that it is survivor-centred ... Indigenous-led ... First Nation-led, (and) community-led,” said Mamakwa, the only Indigenous MPP at Queen’s Park.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, there were 18 residential schools in Ontario, the last of which closed in 1991.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford noted there are a dozen unmarked burial sites with the graves of at least 426 Indigenous children in the province.
“We know that the tragic findings at a former Indian Residential School site in British Columbia are sadly not an anomaly,” said Rickford, who worked as a nurse on Indigenous reserves.
Ogichidaa Grand Council Treaty #3 Grand Chief Frances Kavanaugh praised the province for acting, but said “the Catholic Church needs to come forward and make efforts to bring the pope to Canada for a formal apology for all First Nations.”
“I believe it’s incumbent on them to do that,” Kavanaugh said of a church that operated some of the most notorious schools where Indigenous children who had been taken from their parents were often abused by priests, nuns and other Catholic officials.
“For me, it’s very painful to be up here talking about what happened to our people. You know there’s going to be more remains found. I’m certain of that,” he said, adding survivors “still see their perpetrators who are still alive and still they haven’t been (held) accountable.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also called upon Pope Francis to “step up” and acknowledge the church’s role in the schools.
Ontario Regional Chief Roseanne Archibald said she was “grateful” that the province is tackling such a painful issue.
“Our little ones need to be found, named, and where possible, returned to their families and communities,” said Archibald.
“Memorial sites must go up across Ontario to remind us that we can never let this happen to our children again, ever.”
Alvin Fiddler, the former grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski, said “our Nations are in mourning.”
“Survivors have long shared the truths about the missing children. The province is now listening. Our Nations must lead this important and sacred work with the support from the province,” said Fiddler.
“We require access to funding, technical expertise, mental health supports and justice. We want to find our children and bring them home.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said his party supported the funding to identify and commemorate residential school burial sites.
“We are urging the government to reinstate the Indigenous curriculum changes they cancelled in 2018,” added Del Duca.
The findings of the investigation and the history of Indigenous peoples must be taught to future generations so that history is never allowed to repeat itself.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie