When then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the First Nations Peoples in 2008 for the residential school system, I cast doubt on the sincerity of his words. I still feel that way given the many harmful pieces of legislation his government imposed on us without any consultation.
Now we know that, after his “heartfelt” apology, Harper’s administration obstructed the search for children who died in the residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which released its final report December 15, specifically identified the deaths of 3,201 children in residential schools, but the report says this data is incomplete. TRC Chair Murray Sinclair said the real number is at minimum 6,000, if not much higher, potentially five times as large.
In Quebec, at least 38 deaths occurred. However, both Indian Affairs and Health Canada destroyed documents that could have shed more light on the extent of the death toll in the early years. Quebec, along with Ontario and Saskatchewan, have yet to turn over provincial records that could help identify children who died in their residential schools.
Many makeshift cemeteries where these children were quickly buried have yet to be located. The TRC report calls for a national program to identify them.
We agree with that recommendation. But it should go further than that. The bodies of all children who did not survive the horrors of residential school – from whatever era – should be returned home to rest among their ancestors and the land from which they came.
I recognize some of the difficulties in this proposal. Yet, other countries (such as the United States and Australia) have done this and passed legislation to ensure repatriation human remains to their Indigenous peoples. Canada does not have such legislation. It should.
Laws enacted by other countries allow Indigenous peoples to have a say in the final disposition of cultural items and remains. It also provides protection and careful control over removal of human remains and artifacts belonging to a particular people or culture. They carry criminal penalties for illegal trafficking in human remains and cultural items.
Canada needs to catch up with the rest of the world on this. In British Columbia, the Haida Repatriation Committee, all volunteers, have taken on the responsibility for bringing home the remains of their ancestors, grave materials and ancient Haida treasures from museums and private collections around the world.
“Our ancestors are our relatives and we have a deep connection to them,” reads the committee mission statement. “We are who we are today because of them. We believe that as long as the remains of our ancestors are stored in museums and other unnatural locations far from home, that the souls of these people are wandering and unhappy. Once they are returned to their homeland of Haida Gwaii and are laid to rest with honour, the souls can rest and our communities may heal a bit more.”
And that is precisely why the children who died in the residential schools should be returned home. It is to lay those souls to rest but also to play a part in the healing of First Nations Peoples. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to the First Nations for the residential school system I felt his words were heartfelt and sincere. He has promised to honour the 94 recommendations of the TRC.
In the end, however, he should also let these child victims of the darkest chapter in Canadian history finally return home.