Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The discovery of a mass grave where the remains of 215 children were found at an Indian residential school in British Columbia last week has spurred the Alberta government to take action.
Yesterday, Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson announced that his government will fund research to compile a registry that will include undocumented deaths and burials of the Indigenous children who attended residential schools in Alberta.
Assembly of First Nations Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras appreciates the move, but admits it “bothers” her that a mass grave is what was needed for the province to respond.
“Our people knew about it. Our people talked about this, that they witnessed babies being burned in incinerators. They witnessed the children. Young boys had to bury the dead. That was what was requested of them from the priests and the nuns. They knew these stories.
“Now it’s come to light they have been speaking the truth for all this time. And, yes, it does unfortunately take something like this to make people stand up, take notice and to make attempts to do something about it,” she said.
Wilson points out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which were delivered in 2015, includes six calls for Missing Children and Burial Information. The TRC called upon the federal government “to allocate sufficient resources” (Call No. 72) for the development and maintenance of a National Residential School Student Death Register.
Poitras believes the federal government “has a huge responsibility” and needs to take it on considering it was a federal policy that brought about the Indian residential school system.
Wilson says because the federal government has not “step(ped) up to the plate,” Premier Jason Kenney gave him permission to take on the work.
Wilson says that Kenney also told him that if Ottawa didn’t provide funding to advance the work, Alberta will make the funding available. There is no price tag yet as to how much that funding will be. Wilson said he made an initial call to the federal government today for financial support.
There is already provincial grant funding available for research work for residential schools through Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women. Wilson said Minister Leila Aheer has said she will provide support.
Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish will be the lead on the government-led initiative because he has “the ability to get into files,” said Wilson.
Wilson anticipates searching will begin in the Legislature library and will branch out to include working with the churches, First Nations, colleges like Blue Quill, and organizations like Poundmaker’s Lodge. Both Blue Quills, in Saddle Lake First Nation, and Poundmaker’s, in St. Albert, are former residential schools.
Poitras knows records will not be easy to track down. She points to Holy Angel residential school in her home community of Fort Chipewyan. Once it was demolished the records went to Fort Smith, NWT, and are now in Yellowknife.
“So there’s a lot of digging that needs to happen,” she said.
Poitras says she has had only a brief discussion with Wilson about the registry.
“He needs to get the leadership involved,” she said. “Talk to the leadership and establish some kind of committee, working together to ensure that we do this in a respectful way and that we have the information that we need for us to work through.”
Wilson understands that documentation is not available for all of the 25 residential schools that operated in Alberta.
“Several of the chiefs have reached out to me and said come and meet with us. We’ll work with you.…We have to work with the Elders. We have to work with the survivors, because they're going to be the boots on the ground. They're going to know from their own personal histories and the stories that they've heard as to where these things are,” he said.
Wilson said while Alberta Services began the work today of looking at documents, there is no deadline set as to when the registry will be completed.
“It’ll be evolving as we go. This isn’t something that’s just going to (be taken) on and disappear,” he said.
Wilson said the work could go beyond developing a registry and include looking for unmarked graves.
“That’s part of it, but of course we have to really be sensitive around that area,” he said. He emphasized moving forward on what happens with “very sacred ground” will be up to chiefs and Elders.
A resource guide put out by Aheer’s department in 2020 for researching and recognizing residential school sites references “careful archaeological investigation using ground-penetrating radar … to find burial locations.”
It was this technique that discovered the mass grave at Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Poitras points out that the federal government provided the resources for that work so “there is precedent set in terms of the amount of resources that are required, so it’s not something that we don’t know.”
She said the registry and finding the burial sites are necessary work for families.
“Every region, right across the country, it needs to happen. We have to do a search for the rest of the missing children to honour them, bring them back, so the people that have all those losses can have some form of closure,” she said.
She said an apology from the Pope, as the Roman Catholic Church operated about 70 per cent of the country’s Indian residential schools, would also help heal. Other church leaders have apologized for their part in the schools.
Wilson said people are now more aware of Indian residential schools because of the news of the 215 children buried in the mass grave.
He says a vigil he attended last night at the Alberta Legislature had easily 3,000 people there, many of whom were non-Indigenous.
“(There were a) lot of tears, but we've got to do that grieving and hopefully like now, with what we're doing, we can move forward and start that healing process because we can't dwell on the grief. It will just overwhelm you,” said Wilson.
Because of that grief, Poitras stresses the need for mental health support for trauma and healing. Wilson says the government has “pumped up” the services during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a news release issued today, Métis Nation of Alberta President Audrey Poitras called yesterday’s announcement “a good start.”
“History sadly supports our mistrust, but we hope that this devastating discovery is the catalyst for true reconciliation in this province,” said Audrey Poitras, who pointed out that Métis children also attended residential schools.
Métis were not included in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement approved in 2006, nor in Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008.
“While we cannot bring these children home to their families, we can honour them, their communities, and the plight of Indigenous people everywhere by ensuring that the atrocities of the past are never repeated and never forgotten,” said Audrey Poitras.