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‘Canada’s responsibility’: Trudeau responds to report of unmarked graves at residential school site

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WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today the pain and grief Indigenous communities are feeling after a preliminary report of 751 unmarked graves found near a former residential school in Saskatchewan is “Canada’s responsibility to bear.”

“I recognize these findings only deepen the pain that families, survivors, and all Indigenous peoples and communities are already feeling, and that they reaffirm a truth that they have long known,” Trudeau said in a media statement.

“The hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear, and the government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need to bring these terrible wrongs to light. While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.”

The Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding today of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

“This is not a mass grave site. These are unmarked graves,” Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme told a virtual news conference this morning.

Delorme said there may have been markers for the graves at one point. He said the Roman Catholic church, which managed the cemetery, may have removed markers at some point in the 1960s.

He said it’s not immediately clear whether all of the unmarked graves belonged to children. Oral tradition in Cowesses First Nation says that both children and adults were buried there, Delorme said.

Trudeau said Thursday evening that he’s spoken on the phone to both Delorme and Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, about the unmarked graves.

“We’re committed to working together in true partnership to right these historic wrongs and advance reconciliation in concrete, meaningful, and lasting ways,” Trudeau wrote on Twitter.

The discovery follows a similar discovery last month at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced the discovery of a grave site adjacent to the former residential school and said that preliminary findings indicate the remains of 215 children are buried there.

“The findings in Marieval and Kamloops are part of a larger tragedy. They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country,” Trudeau said in his statement.

“And together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”

‘Not good enough’: Marion Buller

Marion Buller, who served as chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said today she wants to hear more from the prime minister than just “thoughts and prayers.”

“It’s a nice statement. A very well-crafted statement of sympathy and empathy but there’s no action there,” Buller told CBC News Network.

Marion Buller, former Chief Commissioner of the MMIWG National Inquiry, says the Prime Minister’s response to the discovery at Marieval Indian Residential School isn’t good enough. (CBC)

Buller pointed out that Trudeau has said repeatedly that no relationship is more important to Canada than the Crown-Indigenous relationship.

“Prove it with concrete action. Release the documents. Stop the action in federal court regarding the application of Jordan’s principle. Take responsibility. Acknowledge. Move forward. Come up with things that we all can do, that you can do [as] government if you’re re-elected,” Buller told host Suhana Meharchand.

Buller was referring to documents and records that some churches which ran residential schools have so far refused to release.

The federal government is in court fighting a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that, in part, widened the application of Jordan’s Principle — which states that First Nation children on reserves must not be kept waiting for vital social services because governments can’t agree on who should pay for them.

‘More work needs to be done’: Erin O’Toole

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said today his party acknowledges the “deep sorrow and mourning that all Indigenous people and survivors of Residential Schools are experiencing at this time.”

“Our hearts grieve for the Cowessess First Nation and the surrounding Indigenous communities who are sharing this trauma,” O’Toole said in a media statement.

Leader of the Opposition Erin O’Toole rises to speak during a debate about the discovery of remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Tuesday, June 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (The Canadian Press)

“This discovery is a sombre reminder that so much more work needs to be done to address the devastating and harmful effects that residential schools had, and still have, on many survivors today.”

In December, O’Toole walked back comments he made to Ryerson University students claiming the residential school system was designed to “provide education” to Indigenous children before it went off the rails and became a “horrible program.”

In his statement today, O’Toole pointed to his call for the Liberal government to provide a swift timeline and funding to deliver on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action 71 through 76 — which focus on missing children and identifying burial sites.

The Liberal government’s 2019 budget set aside $33.8M over three years to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register and work with parties to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is calling on the federal government to implement every one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations.

“Chief Cadmus Delorme’s announcement that 751 unmarked graves have been found at Marieval Residential School is heartbreaking and further proof of the genocide against Indigenous people in this country,” Singh said in a statement today.

“Indigenous people deserve more than words and promises. These horrific discoveries make it undeniably clear: the federal government has failed and is continuing to fail First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.”

According to a CBC News tracker, 13 of the TRC’s recommendations have been completed, 61 are in progress and 20 have not yet been started. 

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools in Canada.

Former senator Murray Sinclair, who served as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, estimates that at least 6,000 children died while in the residential school system.

The TRC describes the intent of the schools as “cultural genocide.”

How to get help

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and for those triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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