Death records of residential school students to be shared with National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A new information-sharing agreement with Manitoba will help uncover what happened to children who went to residential schools and ended up in unmarked graves, Indigenous groups say.
Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, called it "an important contribution to all ongoing efforts to find all of our children."
"The families and communities have a right to know about the children that did not return home from school and know where their little ones lay buried," she said at a signing event Monday morning in the rotunda of the legislative building in downtown Winnipeg.
A new information-sharing agreement with the provincial government will allow the Manitoba Vital Statistics Branch to share with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation any records, including death records, of Indigenous children who attended residential schools in Manitoba.
"I believe that trust starts and ends with truth, and it's my hope that we are building trust today," Government Services Minister James Teitsma said.
"We cannot lose sight of the harsh reality of the information that is being shared. It is a grim and sobering reminder of the generational impact that residential schools have had on our province and on our nation."
Born from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was active from 2008 to 2015, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was created to be the steward of all the statements, documents and sacred items gathered during that time, Scott said.
It is also mandated to continue the TRC's research, education and community engagement. One of the TRC's 94 calls to action, No. 71, called upon provincial and statistics agencies to provide death records of all Indigenous children in the care of residential school authorities.
"Through this agreement, the NCTR will be able to access information in death certificates … [that] will help families and the NCTR to fill in some of the gaps that currently stop us from finding out further truth about residential school children who did not return home and are in unmarked burials," Scott said.
"Where we have the name of a student who attended a particular school but we have no information on when or how they died or where they were buried, we may now be able to add that crucial information to the historical records."
Scott doesn't expect vital statistics to have information about every student whose life is being researched, "but each new piece of information that we gain matters … and helps to complete the narratives about what happened to the children who did not make it home."
Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak both called the signing of the agreement a historic moment, but long overdue.
"Today is the day when we embark on a journey where nations will be able to find answers," Settee said.
Merrick said the access to death certificates will "give hope to our people that have been seeking that closure" and give identities to those in unmarked graves.
"They need to be talked about. Their names need to be talked about, because they never had that in the residential schools. They were numbers to the governments," she said.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 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.