Identifying, marking and preserving residential school gravesites are all calls to action listed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report. However, First Nation communities are still waiting for many of those calls to be answered nearly six years after the report was published.
“Canada can start by handing over all of those records. The churches can start by handing over all of those records,” said Chief Bobby Cameron with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN).
Cameron says those documents will help paint a clearer picture as many communities continue to search for unmarked graves.
The TRC report lists 566 students who died while attending Saskatchewan residential schools between the years 1867 and 2000. Nearly 200 of those students are unnamed.
Across Canada, the TRC says at least 3,125 students died. However, that number is likely larger.
The National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation’s death registry identifies just eight students who died while attending Marieval Indian Residential School.
Earlier this week, Cowessess First Nation announced it found an estimated 751 unmarked graves located near the Marieval Indian Residential School site.
“There are many sites [where] we are going to be doing this similar work and we will find more,” Cameron said.
On Friday, the Catholic group that operated 48 residential schools, including Marieval and Kamloops Indian Residential Schools, said it will disclose all historical documents that it has.
In a statement, the Missionary of Oblates of Mary Immaculate says it has worked to make historical documents available through universities, archives and the TRC. However, the work is not complete due to complications with provincial and national privacy laws.
Merelda Fiddler-Potter, Vanier Scholar and First Nations University of Canada lecturer, says there are a number of reasons the TRC’s calls to action are still unfulfilled more than five years later.
She points to the change in government around the time the TRC released its report as well as the “daunting” task to meet 94 TRC calls to action and 231 calls for justice out of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry.
“Governments then are responsible for picking and choosing which ones of those calls they meet,” Fiddler-Potter said.
She also says many viewed the TRC report as the end of the conversation, instead of the beginning.
“What we really had to do was start with the truth that still needed to be explored, that still needed to be discussed and that still needed to be, in this case, even unearthed,” she said, adding many thought we could skip right to the reconciliation phase.
“When you understand all of the truth, then having a conversation about how to reconcile or to move forward is a little bit easier.”
Now is the time for many of us to listen, Fiddler-Potter said, as we look to First Nations communities and follow their lead.
She says it’s important that each community decides how it wants to start the conversation and heal, rather than taking a blanket approach that comes from outside officials.
Hearing stories from Elders, residential school survivors and descendants won’t be easy, but it is necessary as more of these gravesites are searched, Fiddler-Potter said.
“Moving from truth to reconciliation, we tried to do it quickly the first time,” she said. “Now we might have to stick ourselves in truth for a little bit and find ways to deal with the heaviness of that before we try to rush ahead.”
Elmer Eashappie, an Aboriginal culture advisor, says it’s important for all of us to begin conversations about these discoveries, adding now is the opportunity to play a more active role in reconciliation. For Eashappie, action means educating yourself and understanding the history.
“What happened in Cowessess and Kamloops, I think people really need to embrace and fully understand what happened at that time and how Canada was shaped,” Eashappie said.
“If we’re going to move forward together, I think people need to fully understand that there is a past and when we move forward together I think then only society will change.”
Understanding also comes with unlearning many things we were taught about Indigenous Peoples, according to Eashappie.
He says the Canadian government “failed to recognize” the issues happening to Indigenous Peoples in residential schools and those failures carried over into the education system.
“It’s unfortunate that the government did not educate the mainstream of Canada on what was truly happening and what they were doing to Indigenous people,” he said.
To move forward with reconciliation, Eashappie says the public should research what they can and read the TRC report.
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access the 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
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