The Ontario government is offering $10 million in funding for Indigenous communities to locate and investigate burial grounds surrounding the province’s 18 residential schools.
The funds come after the bodies of 215 Indigenous children and youth were located in unmarked graves outside a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., just last month.
Last week, Chief Mark Hill of Six Nations of the Grand River called on the federal government for the funding to help locate bodies outside of the Mohawk Institute, near Brantford.
To date, the federal government has offered $27 million in funding for all First Nations communities to help identify and investigate marked and unmarked burial grounds near residential schools.
“We watched in horror as a nation saw this on the news. This discovery is unacceptable on every level,” Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford said. “And my conversation with the Premier was very pointed. We both agreed that Ontario had to take a leadership role in responding to this for the benefit of survivors, their families and their communities.”
According to a confidential information deck obtained by CityNews, the money is considered an “initial investment” and is expected to flow over the next three years. Rickford said they are taking a “ready, set, go” approach to implementation, suggesting the rollout will be relatively quick.
It’s a three-phase plan, with mental health supports and information gathering starting immediately, and burial site identification and fieldwork commencing shortly thereafter.
Phase three will involve death investigations, repatriation and commemoration. Indigenous communities will have the option to work in conjunction with Ontario specialists, such as experts from the Centre of Forensic Sciences and the Office of the Chief Coroner/Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, but Rickford said there will be an option to retain private sector support “in case the provincial capacity becomes limited at some point.”
The overall approach will be based on Indigenous-led decision-making, with “flexibility for communities to proceed in the manner and at a pace they determine,” according to the confidential deck.
The document also states that new legislation may be introduced to help with the three-pronged plan, including a potential provincial day of remembrance and site-protection requirements.
“This goes all the way back to the Indian Residential Schools (Settlement) Agreement itself, which I was as a lawyer then a signatory to that agreement on behalf of thousands of Ontario survivors. So I’ve been given an opportunity by the Premier to step into this space based on a lot of knowledge and a huge network of survivors and put something together that we think most definitely is going to help the survivors of Ontario, the families of Indigenous families of Ontario. And to the extent that the federal programme may miss that mark or be under significant pressure, which I think they’re going to have to revisit, we’re going to be there for those people.”
A big emphasis is placed on trauma-informed mental health supports for survivors, but also entire communities — something Rickford believes can be deployed rapidly.
“A trauma-informed, culturally relevant response of mental health and wellness supports are a critical component of phase one and phase two,” Rickford explains.
He points to work already underway in providing mobile mental health and addictions resources to remote and isolated Indigenous communities, and the province’s ability to tap into that network.
“We’re going to be able to leverage their mobility and their access to communities to expand that offering specifically for these kinds of issues around burial sites known, unknown, and unmarked burials to support families. I think just the shock to the community that this is an unanswered question in the most general sense (mental health assistance) is going to be available to them.”
Rickford said the plan is the product of extensive research and planning, with considerable input from Indigenous leaders.
“I’m grateful that the Ontario government is answering my call and the call of all Chiefs in Ontario to provide funding and work in a respectful manner with local leadership and Knowledge Keepers to search the grounds of all former Residential School sites in Ontario,” Ontario Regional Chief Roseanne Archibald states in a media release.
“Our little ones need to be found, named, and where possible, returned to their families and communities. Memorial sites must go up across Ontario to remind us that we can never let this happen to our children again, ever.”
Chief Hill echoes Archibald’s enthusiasm, writing: “With the Government of Ontario committing to a full investigation of burial sites, Six Nations is encouraged in the hope that we will find all of our missing children and bring to light what happened to them. This is a step towards justice.”
“We feel that we’ve got a proposal here, a programme that will meet the needs of survivors, families and the communities as they endeavour to reconcile and deal with a lot of profound and disturbing, quite frankly, unanswered questions,” Rickford added.
Support is available for those affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are impacted by recent news coverage. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.