UN human rights experts call on Canada to investigate residential school burial sites

OTTAWA — The United Nations' human-rights special rapporteurs are calling on Canada and the Catholic Church to conduct prompt and thorough investigations into the finding of an unmarked burial site believed to contain the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a British Columbia residential school.

The UN special rapporteurs said Friday the investigations should examine the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding these deaths, including forensic examinations of any remains to allow for the identification and registration of missing children.

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"We urge the authorities to conduct full-fledged investigations," said the UN experts in a statement.

"Large scale human rights violations have been committed against children belonging to Indigenous communities, it is inconceivable that Canada and the Holy See would leave such heinous crimes unaccounted for and without full redress."

The Holy See is the central governing body of the Catholic Church.

The UN experts also called on Ottawa to undertake similar investigations in all other Indigenous residential schools across the country.

The special rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, which is the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system.

The signatories to the statement included Fabián Salvioli, special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and Francisco Cali Tzay, special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The experts said Canada's judiciary should conduct criminal investigations into all suspicious deaths and allegations of torture and sexual violence against children kept in residential schools, and prosecute and sanction the perpetrators and concealers who may still be alive.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has made $27 million in previously announced funding available to conduct further searches of possible residential school burial sites.

Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa Friday that the families and the communities of the Indigenous children who were victims of the residential schools system should be at the centre of Canada's path forward.

"What the government of Canada thinks is the right thing to do, or wants to do is secondary in this issue," he said.

"We will be there to support what the communities want and need."

Trudeau said Canada is open to creating national standards to investigate burial sites or individual approaches for every Indigenous community, noting that his government is also open to international participation in this process.

The UN experts also urged the Catholic Church to provide full access to judicial authorities to the archives of the residential schools run by the institution, to conduct prompt and thorough internal and judicial investigations into these allegations, and to publicly disclose the result of those investigations.

Trudeau also called on the Catholic Church to "step up" and take responsibility for its role in Canada's residential school system.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this week, a UN human rights office spokeswoman, Marta Hurtado also said Canada must ensure "prompt and exhaustive investigations'' into the deaths and redouble efforts to find the whereabouts of missing children, including by searching unmarked graves.

Retired senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called also 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.

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 4, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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