Ontario to release action plan for unmarked graves in wake of residential school burial ground discovered in B.C.
TORONTO -- Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs Minister is promising the provincial government will take action around the search for possible children’s remains in Ontario given the revelations of a mass burial ground connected to a former residential school in B.C.
In an interview with CTV News Toronto Tuesday, Greg Rickford, who represents the riding of Kenora-Rainy River, said 426 Indigenous children are known to have died at schools in Ontario, and there are at least a dozen known unmarked burial sites across the province.
“We’ve made a commitment to come up with something that will roll out in the coming days and weeks that is substantial and substantive, that accounts for the need of Indigenous leadership, survivors and elders to inform us, but also to leverage every bit of the technical expertise that we have to go and do site specific work so Indigenous communities and importantly families can get more information and begin the process of recovery,” said Rickford.
“This work is long overdue and I think we owe this present urgency to the children that never made it home from Kamloops and the prospect, the very real prospect that similar circumstances may exist in Ontario.”
Indigenous lawyer Naomi Sayers said she’s had a difficult time since the discovery in B.C.
“I don’t want to see another ‘sorry’ come across my screen. I’d rather see people taking active steps supporting whatever work that need to be done,” she told CTV News Toronto Tuesday from Sault Ste Marie.
Back in 2015, missing children and burial information were included within the 94 calls to action presented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], where those affected by the schools shared experiences of being taken from their parents and abused.
Number 75 recommended for the federal government to work with, among others, provincial governments to develop and implement strategies for, “ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried.”
Still, many survivors and families are upset and angry that it’s taken uncovering the remains of 215 children in B.C., years after the TRC, to see the will to investigate other sites.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government came into power in June 2018.
“Much of that work could’ve and should’ve been done previously, again this is about accounting for the benefit of the survivors here in the province of Ontario,” Rickford said in response to the TRC and with respect to burial sites.
He said the government has been working on reconciliation through archiving and digitizing records, locating death records, anti-Indigenous racism and justice revitalization.
He didn’t provide a hint on a possible financial contribution to do the work, but said it will be site specific, adding he and the premier spoke within 24 hours after the discovery in Kamloops.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and communities that have been touched and impacted by this horrific finding,” said Rickford.
“Unimaginable, to me, as a father with young school aged children. As someone involved in this in several different ways, it’s a grim reminder of the darkest chapter of Canada’s history.”
Sayers, who grew up in Garden River First Nation, said she is struggling with the fact that Indigenous communities have been saying for years bodies may be buried, among other outcomes.
“Loss of language, loss of access to culture,” she said. “I experienced the loss of my dad recently in 2017. He spent a long time trying to regain his culture and did that all on his own”
“It just makes me really sad that there’s not sort of any investment from people who could be helping Indigenous people return to their culture, and people are left doing it on their own,” said an emotional Sayers.
Sayers parents went to Indian day schools. Although children went home at night, during the day, they were abused and denied being taught their language and culture, she said.
Sayers believes with the discovery in B.C., governments can no longer delay action on reconciliation.
“There is no excuse to say why they can’t do some of them. There is no excuse why other Canadians cannot follow through, because there is also calls to action for businesses, teachers, justice system workers. All those places have regular other people who have decision making power.”
Moving forward to search at sites
Sayers said people don’t understand what it takes to dig up a site and is calling for counselling and resource supports to be in place as the work will take a significant amount of time.
“There’s a lot of surveying involved. There’s a lot of mapping and a lot of planning. You can’t just go to a site and take this technology,” she said.
“I think that the time spent into discovering this unmarked grave in Kamloops, that was a significant time. And I think we need to communicate that more clearly, that this will take time.”
“Because this is hard work, and I’m not taking about hard work digging that up. It’s hard work mentally, emotionally and psychologically.”
Rickford said the former residential school in Brantford is one of the sites which could have a possible unmarked grave.