The Ontario government announced on Tuesday that it is committing $10 million over the next three years to identify, investigate and commemorate burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools in the province.
Premier Doug Ford said the investigations will be Indigenous-led and focused on meaningful work to help those who are living with the legacy of the residential schools.
"This is a moment to recognize the painful legacy of Canada's residential school system and of the damaging, lasting effect it has had on survivors and Indigenous communities," Ford said at a press conference.
"There is painful but necessary work ahead and we must confront what happened for reconciliation to be achieved."
The move comes in the wake of the recovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Since that discovery, Indigenous leaders across the country are calling for all residential schools sites to be thoroughly investigated.
Rama First Nation Chief Ted Williams says he welcomes the initiative announced today. But he feels the effort may fall well short of accomplishing justice.
“This is probably not the amount of funds that could do a proper job,” Williams said. “I think that’s what you will find and what you would hear if you talk to other First Nation’s leadership.”
However, Williams believes the provincial government's effort is a step in the right direction and is not just a political stunt.
“If anyone chooses to play politics with this very sensitive issue in the First Nations community then I would be disgusted and appalled,” he said.
Williams was happy to hear that Indigenous people will be at the forefront of the investigation of residential schools.
“I think it’s important for the Indigenous community to be aware, lead, and provide the necessary protocols to honour whatever and whomever we may uncover,” he said.
Williams says the Chippewas of Rama leadership and community are with all the families of the Indigenous children who have been found and are yet to be found.
Local elder Jeff Monague, who lit a days-long sacred fire at Springwater Park after the bodies were discovered in B.C., agrees today's announcement is a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s great. Ontario has spoken and (and the people) have asked for this to happen, and I’m glad they’ve agreed to do that,” Monague said.
However, the investigations can only be deemed as meaningful within the Indigenous community if the governments and churches who played roles in the operation of residential schools are involved, Monague says.
“If they aren’t involved in it, then it really doesn’t mean anything. Essentially this is everything the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has called for,” said Monague, a former chief of Beausoleil First Nation and a long-time educator.
Monague is hopeful the investigations are truly Indigenous-led.
“The provincial and federal governments need to be taking the initiative, and up to this point they hadn’t been,” he said.
“If you want to talk about reconciliation, then this is a part of it. Seeing those truths come out, and then acknowledging those truths, doing something about it, and then helping each other move on, that’s what reconciliation is,” he explained.
Monague says people should brace themselves for some disturbing results that may come from the upcoming investigations.
“My mother is a survivor of a residential school and she always told stories about kids who were taken in the night that they never saw again. Later on, when they left those institutions, they thought they may have made it back home from where they came from, but they weren’t there,” he explained.
“People have always assumed that they were probably killed somewhere. Some survivors have spoken about having to dig the graves themselves. There were witnesses to the violence that resulted in some of the deaths of those kids," he explained.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said initial site identification will be the first step in what is anticipated to be a “much more extensive project.”
It is for this reason the government also announced that not only will they be working in partnership with survivors, elders, leaders and communities, but that, “the Government of Ontario will ensure that technical experts, such as archaeologists, forensic specialists and historians are available to support communities.”
This includes Dr. Michael Pollanen, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist, and Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner.
The timeline, said Rickford, will be set by the communities.
“We anticipate that many will want this process to move as quickly as possible. However, we must also ensure that the process is respectful and thorough. To that end, we are offering communities additional pieces of support.”
Rickford said the addition of the two top doctors ensures “this critical work is done to the highest standard possible and rooted in a respectful and informed approach by the Indigenous people of Ontario.”
Rickford confirmed the investigation process, driven by survivors' knowledge, could extend beyond the 18 known residential school sites in Ontario.
"What we're providing is an opportunity moving forward for that information to come forward," the minister said.
More funding might be allocated after the immediate focus on searches and support for affected individuals, Rickford said. The province is also prepared to call on the federal government for support, he said.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
-- With files from Canadian Press.