OTTAWA — Retired senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is calling for an independent investigation to examine all burial sites near former residential schools.
He told a House of Commons committee Thursday that such a probe should not be run by the federal government, but should be overseen by a parliamentary committee that will ensure it is done in a proper way.
"It's good for Canada to understand that we still have to come to terms with a lot of what occurred during the residential school era, and that there are a lot of uncovered truths out there that we need to look at," he said.
Sinclair said there are so many questions that remain to be answered including how many burial sites exist in Canada, where they are located and how many children are buried in them.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced last week that ground-penetrating radar had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children in an unmarked burial site on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Sinclair said the RCMP in British Columbia has launched an investigation into the burial site but he criticized the approach of officers.
"They are simply intimidating people rather than helping them," he said.
"They should not be pursuing those who are revealing information. They should, in fact, be looking for those records. They should be looking at what it is that we do know, as opposed to trying to pursue witnesses."
Staff Sgt. Bill Wallace of the Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP said that after a May 31 meeting with band officials, the RCMP confirmed the band remains the lead and the force will continue to support it in determining next steps.
"The Tk’emlúps Rural RCMP has attended the site, participated in meetings, and will continue working closely with the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc community leaders in determining the next steps and the best way to be involved in any investigative avenues explored going forward, while at the same time being supportive, respectful, and culturally sensitive to the Indigenous communities that are impacted," Wallace said in a statement.
A file has been opened and any further actions will be taken in consultation with the First Nation, he said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on Canada's residential-school system details the harsh mistreatment of Indigenous children at the government-funded, church-operated schools.
The TRC estimated that more than 6,000 Indigenous children died at residential schools amid abuse and neglect, but Sinclair said the true figure was much higher.
TRC commissioner Marie Wilson said those who were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children should be brought to justice.
"Accountability, so that we hold ourselves up as a country to the international standards and expectations that we would in fact, and have in the past, advocated for other countries, including the consideration of crime and crimes against humanity," she told the parliamentary committee.
"It is an issue of human rights and of justice, of critical importance."
Stephanie Scott, director of operations at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said a significant key to deal with the issue of unknown burial sites is piecing together the evidence remains with survivors and their families.
"Many are in unmarked graves, but there are also accounts of bodies that were buried within walls. There are bodies buried in the hills or by river sides, and bodies that were never found after children died trying to escape the schools," she said.
"These sites are, in fact, crime scenes, and the discovery at Kamloops has triggered a new urgency (for) survivors and their families to share their truth while they still can."
She said documenting what survivors witnessed or what families have shared about missing loved ones is an urgent issue.
"We are racing against time. We often hear from survivors that they have fewer tomorrows than they have yesterdays," Scott said.
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of the national centre, said hiding, damaging, interfering with or destroying the graves of residential schoolchildren must be recognized as a crime and prosecuted as such.
She said national standards must be put in place concerning the use of investigative technologies such as ground-penetrating radar to ensure the privacy of affected families is respected, and ensure any evidence of crimes is not compromised.
"All measures to investigate and protect burial sites must be consistent with the rights of Indigenous people in domestic and international law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," Wesley-Esquimaux said.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Wednesday the federal government will distribute $27 million in previously announced funding to assist Indigenous communities in locating and memorializing children who died at residential schools.
Justice Minister David Lametti has also said he is open to the idea of criminalizing interference with residential school burial sites.
Sinclair said the TRC urged the government in its calls to action numbers 71 to 75 to work with the churches and the Indigenous communities to locate burial sites and list the names of children who died.
"Nothing has been done by the government to follow that up," he said. "We think that's a sad commentary upon the commitment the government has or lack of commitment the government has to trying to close the story."
He said the churches who ran residential schools have not yet shared their records of the deaths of Indigenous children with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Sinclair said he has heard from about 200 residential school survivors over the past few days who have shared their grief, anger and frustration over the news from Kamloops.
The extensive media coverage has been a huge trigger for them, he said.
He said nothing heals survivors more than talking with other survivors, but most of them are unable to do so.
"In most places now, no healing-resource programs are available," he said.
"They're now in great pain as a result of this story, and they will be in even more pain because, as we go forward, I'm sure that we're going to discover additional places where bodies are buried."
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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.