OTTAWA — As memorials with tiny shoes have elicited cries of grief across the nation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are facing tough questions about why little has been done to implement recommendations released six years ago to find and document the unmarked graves of Indigenous children.
Speaking in sombre tones at a virtual event in Ottawa Monday, Trudeau reflected on the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, calling it "heartbreaking news."
He said he is "appalled" at the "shameful policy” that ripped Indigenous children from their families and placed them in residential schools — a collective ordeal that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found in 2015 amounted to a "cultural genocide."
But when pressed for details about precisely what Ottawa is prepared to offer by way of support toward further efforts to find, identify and memorialize thousands of children who died at residential schools, Trudeau remained vague.
"There is obviously more to do and I think there will be more that we will do," he said.
"We have committed as a government to be there for reconciliation, but also to be there for truth and that is an important step. So yes, we will be there to work with communities on the things they need and on the things we all need to know."
He pointed to funding committed in the 2019 federal budget of $33.8 million over three years to develop and maintain a national residential school student death register. This money was also for an online registry of residential school cemeteries.
A national student death register has since been created, which currently contains 4,118 children, and is being maintained by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The centre notes that research efforts are ongoing and the number of children listed is expected increase over time. The centre says it began this work thanks to a "a one-time funding contribution" from the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Affairs.
Several of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action focus directly on the horrors inflicted on children in residential school. Following six years of extensive study, the commission made recommendations on efforts governments, justice systems and church officials should take to try to locate, name and commemorate the children who died.
Six of these recommendations specifically list the actions the commission determined should be done to address missing children and burial information, including funding and co-ordination support to locate and protect school burial sites, both known and unknown.
A website dedicated to updating Canadians on actions taken thus far by Ottawa to implement these six calls to action mainly point to the $33.8 million investment cited by Trudeau and what appears to be preliminary work done by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, including that these departments have "begun discussions with various partners" on ways to implement the recommendations.
The TRC's final report further included a 273-page volume documenting the searing stories of families whose children were forcibly taken and never returned. It also includes testimony from survivors of the schools who remember watching their classmates fall ill and die at alarming rates.
"These examples point to a larger picture: many students who went to residential school never returned. They were lost to their families. They died at rates that were far higher than those experienced by the general school-aged population. Their parents were often uninformed of their sickness and death. They were buried away from their families in long-neglected graves. No one took care to count how many died or to record where they were buried," the report says.
"The most basic of questions about missing children — Who died? Why did they die? Where are they buried? — have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government."
Trudeau told the nation Monday morning he planned to speak with his three cabinet ministers who oversee Indigenous policy and funding on steps that must be taken to support survivors, families and Indigenous Peoples. Later in the day, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett's office clarified that Trudeau was referring to a regular cabinet meeting that evening.
Meanwhile, Federal New Democrats called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons on the grisly discovery in British Columbia.
Leader Jagmeet Singh said the government has not done enough to implement the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years studying the government-sponsored, church-run institutions that operated in Canada for more than 120 years.
It is not good enough for the Liberal government to offer platitudes and make symbolic gestures, such as lowering flags on Parliament Hill to half-mast, Singh said.
"What we have to commit to and face in light of this genocide, Canada has to make some tough decisions about our commitment to remedying this injustice," he told reporters.
"It's not enough to just reflect on the pain of this injustice, the federal government it has to be the responsibility to do something about it."
On Monday, the Commons unanimously supported a special "take-note" debate on this issue to take place on Tuesday, when MPs will be able to make their views known.
When asked about his message to families mourning the loss of their children, Singh paused for a long time at his podium, tears in his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said finally. "We're going to fight for justice for you."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press