PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. — The Manitoba government said Wednesday it will provide $2.5 million to Indigenous groups to help find and commemorate unmarked graves at former residential schools.
The money, initially promised last year, is to be shared between groups including the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Manitoba Inuit Association.
The Indigenous groups, not the government, will decide how to spend the money.
"It is our duty to help First Nations, Inuit and Métis reclaim the dignity of these children as human beings whose ties with their loving families and communities were tragically severed because of the residential school system," Premier Heather Stefanson said during a ceremony at the site of the former Portage Indian Residential School, which closed in 1975.
In Manitoba, there are about a dozen sites where First Nations are searching or planning to search for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar. It is believed the number of children who died at residential schools in Manitoba is much higher than the 338 originally reported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Stefanson said.
During the ceremony, several residential school survivors said Canadians must be made aware of the true extent of the effects of residential schools.
"I was asked last year ... about truth and reconciliation," Charlotte Nolin, a Métis elder said.
"And I said I want the truth to be known, just like the truth of all the ones who were buried and were lost. Then we can begin reconciliation."
Eleanor Elk, who also attended residential school, recalled being strapped and having her mouth washed out with soap for speaking her language. She said the discovery last year of 215 suspected graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., reopened a lot of hurt.
"There is so much trauma we carry as Indigenous people. We still suffer from it."
The Southern Chiefs Organization welcomed the funding and called it one step in the journey of repairing the damage inflicted by colonial systems.
The ceremony followed an often acrimonious relationship between the Progressive Conservative government and Indigenous leaders.
Former premier Brian Pallister angered many last year when he said, after two statues were toppled at the legislature, that people who came to Canada before and after it was a country came to build up rather than to tear down.
His Indigenous relations minister, Eileen Clarke, resigned from cabinet. Her replacement, Alan Lagimodiere, stirred up controversy on his first day in the role when he defended some of the intentions behind residential schools and said they were originally aimed at teaching skills to Indigenous children.
Lagimodiere apologized the next day.
At Wednesday's ceremony, Lagimodiere said every effort must be made to find the remains of buried children.
"These were innocent children ... they were stolen from their families and their lives were stolen."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2022.
— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg
The Canadian Press