An empty chair in a conference room of an Edmonton hotel this week is meant to represent the spirits of children who never returned home from Canada's Indian residential school system, as special interlocutor Kimberly Murray hosts the first national gathering to discuss unmarked burials associated with the schools.
"It's really important for them to know that we're here to help, and not to do any harm to them," said Murray, who is Kanien'kehá:ka from Kanesatake, Que.
The federal government appointed Murray in June with a two-year mandate to to provide recommendations for a legal framework for the protection of burial sites at former residential schools, the identification of missing children and the potential repatriation of remains.
Over 300 First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, representative organizations, survivors and families are attending the two-day gathering which is also partly being livestreamed to the public.
"It isn't just the forgiveness of the state that is at play here," said Natan Obed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president.
"There are so many family realities — intergenerational, personal realities — that are so fundamentally connected to not knowing where your grandfather is buried or not knowing what happened to the infant brother or sister you had.
"These processes, like the one we're about to embark on here, have an incredible amount of meaning to the way we function as Indigenous peoples within our own communities."
Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend the government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.
While an entire volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) final report was dedicated to unmarked burials and missing children, the work was left unfinished.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which is continuing the work of the TRC, has identified over 4,000 children who died at residential schools thus far. Causes of death have included disease, accidents, neglect, and criminal acts.
"The TRC highlighted the need for further work to be done to protect unmarked burial sites of the children and find a way to identify the children who never returned home to their families and communities," said Murray.
She said the children who were sent to other institutions like federal Indian hospitals, sanitariums, mental health institutions or provincial hospitals need to be taken into account as well.
"Many believe, including myself, that are likely unmarked burials of children who died at these places as well," said Murray.
Like the empty chair at this gathering, there was one placed beside former TRC commissioner Wilton Littlechild at every hearing when the commission travelled across Canada to hear from survivors. He said this process will be important to commemorate the children who never returned home.
"We need to recall that we have traditional law that tells us what we need to do. They say that the most difficult is when a child spirit leaves," he said.
"We'd call that child's spirit to come and sit in the chair and listen to the stories, and more importantly to give us strength so that we listen to the over 7,000 stories that we did — the most horrific stories of abuse of children."
Tuesday's gathering also included breakout sessions, which were not livestreamed, on records, archives, search technology, investigations, and barriers to protecting and accessing sites. Summaries of what was discussed during the breakout sessions will be presented on Wednesday.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.