Ontario Government Announces $10 Million to Find Remains on Residential School Sites

The shocking (or not-so-shocking) discovery of 215 young Indigenous children buried on the property of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School forced the country to ask a question: How many more kids are out there, unclaimed, and buried in unmarked graves? The Government of Ontario announced today that they’re going to help try and answer the question by offering $10 million to Indigenous communities across Ontario to find out.

“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, British Columbia,” said Premier Doug Ford in a statement. “That is 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.”

Wednesday’s announcement was made in collaboration with Indigenous groups from around Ontario including the Assembly of First Nations, Six Nations of the Grand River, the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Grand Council Treaty #3. Alvin Fiddler, a candidate for National Chief of the AFN, said that the announcement was an important step in addressing long festering wounds for the nation’s Indigenous people.

“We want to find our children and bring them home,” Fiddler said in a statement. “If a family or community suspects where their lost loved ones are, they should have access to whatever is required to find them – with the appropriate Indigenous health supports in place and meaningful justice sector responses.”

The new funding will allow the Province and Indigenous leaders to create a process for the identification, investigation, protection and commemoration of remains on residential school sites. This means putting together a team of historians, archaeologists, and forensic specialists able to do the work, but not necessarily experts from the Government of Ontario although that expertise will be made available to Indigenous communities. Specialists from the Province’s Centre of Forensic Sciences and the Office of the Chief Coroner/Ontario Forensic Pathology Service will also be made available.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there are at least 12 unmarked burial sites in Ontario, and likely more. The Commission’s report also said that at least 426 children who attended residential schools in Ontario are known to have died, but there are an unknown number of “missing” children. There were 18 different residential schools in this province, and the last one closed in 1991.

“We know that the tragic findings at a former Indian Residential School site in British Columbia are sadly not an anomaly,” said Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford in a statement. “Indigenous leaders and Ontarians are looking to governments to commit to the work of investigating Indigenous Residential School burial sites on a priority basis and our government is taking action to support this process through to completion.”

Over the weekend, Six Nations Elected Chief Mark Hill issued letters to the Provincial and Federal governments demanding funding to investigate the grounds of the Mohawk Residential School, which was Canada’s oldest and longest-running residential school from 1828 to 1970. Hill asked the Federal Minister of Indigenous Services and the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations to immediately release $10 million of the promised $27 million for investigations of residential school grounds across Canada.

“The Mohawk Institute burned down twice, changed locations, and was associated with substantial farm lands on which the children were made to endure hard labour,” Hill wrote. “In recent decades, nearby developments have also encroached upon the related properties, which raises additional concerns about the feasibility of locating certain possible burial sites of our children who went missing so long ago.”

Hill was pleased with Wednesday’s announcement. “With the Government of Ontario committing to a full investigation of burial sites, Six Nations is encouraged in the hope that we will find all of our missing children and bring to light what happened to them. This is a step towards justice,” he said.

Provincial opposition leaders also offered their support for the announcement, but they did have notes.

“I sincerely hope that the $10 million promised over three years to fund the search and identification of burial sites is not capped or finite,” said Green Party leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner. “If more funding is needed over the next three years to conduct these searches, then it should be provided by the government. We need a full non-partisan commitment to tackling the systemic racism and colonialism that perpetuates in our society as we work towards Reconciliation.”

“Ontario Liberals support the funding to identify and commemorate Residential School burial sites, and we are urging the government to reinstate the Indigenous curriculum changes they cancelled in 2018,” said Liberal leader Steven Del Duca in a statement. “We are also calling for a standalone Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation to be appointed to oversee the initiative. 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.”

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