Skip to content

Burial investigations 'could extend beyond known residential school sites' says Minister

Earlier today, the province announce $10 million in funding to identify, investigate and commemorate burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools

Ontario is committing $10 million over a three-year period to identify, investigate and commemorate burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools in the province.

The funds will also go toward supports for school survivors, their families and communities, and the entire process will be Indigenous-led.

"Indigenous communities have waited too long for action to bring justice to the little ones who didn't make it home," Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said from Kenora, Ont., on Tuesday. 

"Initial site identification will be the first step in what is anticipated to be a much more extensive process, and we're committed to seeing this work through to completion in collaboration with our Indigenous partners."

Residential school survivors, elders, community members and leaders will be involved and the process will be guided by the wishes of families and communities, Rickford said.

Ontario's announcement comes a few weeks after what are believed to be the remains of 215 children were found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. 

The Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said it used the services of a ground-penetrating radar specialist to confirm the preliminary findings last month. That discover prompted calls for funding to support similar work across the country. 

In Kenora, Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh of Grand Council Treaty #3 said the news from Kamloops has affected First Nations people across the country. 

"While we already knew this occurred in Canada, it is incredibly painful to relive, especially for survivors and our families will have bravely been telling us the truth for decades," he said.

Kavanaugh also called for searches to extend beyond residential school grounds, based on reports from survivors who recalled children being buried off site or cremated.

"It is important that our efforts are done in a proper way to respect the spirits of the children," he said.

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. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his government had felt the need to act on the issue.

"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," he said. 

"There is painful but necessary work ahead and we must confront what happened for reconciliation to be achieved."

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 12 locations of unmarked burial sites in Ontario. The province said there are likely more. 

The 4,000-page final report from that commission detailed mistreatment at Canada's residential schools, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and more than 4,000 deaths at the institutions.

It reported known deaths of 426 children who attended schools in Ontario and an unknown number of children still missing.

Ontario said its process for investigating residential school sites will involve archaeologists, forensic specialists, historians and other experts. The province's chief coroner and chief forensic pathologist will also be engaged.

The province will also fund culturally appropriate and trauma-informed mental health supports for residential school survivors, their families and communities.

Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in a statement that she was grateful the province was answering the calls of leaders who wanted the work to happen. 

"Our little ones need to be found, named, and where possible, returned to their families and communities," she said in a statement. "Memorial sites must go up across Ontario to remind us that we can never let this happen to our children again, ever."

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 15, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press