Guide aims to help communities navigate searches for residential school unmarked burials

A rock with the message 'Every Child Matters' painted on it sits at a memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., in July 2021.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A rock with the message 'Every Child Matters' painted on it sits at a memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., in July 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Warning: This story contains distressing details.

As First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities embark on searches to identify missing children and unmarked burials at former residential schools, a national committee hopes to help them navigate the difficult journey.

The National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials was formed in July 2022, and released its first publication this week.

The 10-page document was launched during a webinar held on Jan. 19 and serves as an introduction to the various pathways communities may choose to follow in finding missing children who never returned home from residential schools.

"There's communities, there's people who are asking 'where do we even start?'" committee member Kona Williams told CBC News.

"The whole purpose of this document was just to help guide people, to tell people 'This is what's out there, and here's how to access more information.'"

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded residential schools between the 1870s and 1997.

Williams is a forensic pathologist and sits on the national advisory committee with other independent experts on archaeology, archival research, Indigenous laws, criminal investigations, as well as residential school survivors.

Markus Schwabe/CBC
Markus Schwabe/CBC

The committee is funded through Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation serves as convener.

"The communities leading these searches have demonstrated great courage. It is important that they know that they are not alone," said Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, during Thursday's webinar.

The importance of knowledge gathering

The guide is broken down into three sections, addressing factors to consider when planning a search such as consultation with survivors, families, and communities and knowledge gathering.

Kisha Supernant, a committee member and the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, hopes the guide will help address questions about the different kinds of technologies used for ground searches.

Omayra Issa/CBC
Omayra Issa/CBC

She said it's important that technologies are used alongside many other types of information — and it shouldn't be the first step in the journey.

"The technology will be here in a few years," she said.

"It'll be here next year, the year after, the year after that and, if anything, it will get better. Your survivors might not be."

Focus on families, communities

For Romeo Saganash, former NDP member of Parliament and a residential school survivor, the work the committee is doing is about focusing on families and communities, something he knows first-hand.

In 1954, his six-year-old brother Jonnish died shortly after being taken away to a residential school in Moose Factory, Ont. His family was never told how he died or where he was buried.

Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada
Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada

"It took us some 40 years to find out eventually where he was buried," said Saganash.

"I saw my mom cry many times in my life, but never liked that moment ... It is called closure, and that is what families across this country need."

Closure is long-term goal for Williams, too.

"Whatever direction they choose to go, I'm hoping that we can be there to help support them with the information they need to move forward and then, at some point, have some closure," she said.

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 online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.