Survivors, leaders raise concerns about Ontario residential school burial search fund rollout

Residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders are raising concerns about the allocation process for funds the Ontario government has promised to support searches for burial sites near residential schools.

The Progressive Conservative government on Thursday announced a $10 million top-up to the initial $10 million it pledged in June for investigations into unmarked graves. That announcement came after disturbing reports that the remains of 215 children had been found on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Ontario has said it believes there are likely more unmarked burial sites in the province than the 12 identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documented abuse suffered by Indigenous children at residential schools and the deaths of more than 4,000 children.

Read more: Province to spend $10M more on residential school burial site searches in Ontario

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Darlene Laforme, who was forced as a child to attend the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., said $20 million is still not enough.

“It’s another example (of) how they did not consult with the community on our needs,” she said. “There’s a lot of money that has to go into all the work.”

Laforme was with a group of survivors who spoke at a press conference hosted by the provincial New Democrats on Friday.

She is involved in ongoing efforts to investigate what happened to lost children at the Mohawk Institute, and said Friday that Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford had not yet responded to a letter from Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Chief Mark Hill that laid out several concerns about the provincial funding process for that work.

In Hill’s Oct. 27 letter addressed to Premier Doug Ford, he said the community is offended by the ministry’s current approach to funding requests from the Survivors Secretariat, the group working on the search for burial sites.

He wrote the group had requested $3 million annually for the next three years, but in a recent meeting, officials reportedly said the ministry could only commit $400,000 over three years.

Also in that meeting, Hill said members of the Survivors Secretariat were told that funds would be divided among communities associated with the known 18 residential schools in the province.

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That approach isn’t equitable, Hill argued, because the Mohawk Institute — which ran for 136 years — was the oldest continually operating school in Canada and children were taken from around the country to attend.

“Searching the grounds, gathering the historical records, and communicating with Survivors groups and gathering their statements across several regions and provinces will be complex work,” Hill wrote. “The Secretariat requires meaningful support, not perfunctory and superficial commitments.”

Hill asked for a meeting with Ford to discuss the matter.

A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Ontario confirmed that the meeting between ministry officials and the secretariat took place. He said the offer of funding was meant to support “early stages” of the work. Curtis Lindsay said the ministry is looking into other funding options with other departments.

“The wishes of the affected families and communities will be central to this process moving forward, and we are committed to seeing this work through to completion,” he said.

NDP legislator Sol Mamakwa, who himself attended a residential school and represents a riding that covers northern First Nations, said he is concerned that the process is not Indigenous-led, as the government had promised in June when it announced the funding.

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He took issue with the proposal-based approach, which means the government has to approve plans before dispersing the money.

“That approach is not even right, either,” he said. “It’s not looking as if it’s Indigenous-led.”

Read more: Ontario set to release death records of 1,800 Indigenous children

The NDP is calling for Rickford to be removed from his cabinet position as Indigenous Affairs Minister, citing a lack of trust among survivors. Hill also made that request in his letter to Ford.

Survivors who spoke on Friday also raised the issue of challenges survivors and communities face in accessing government death records of Indigenous children.

The province said this week it would waive fees for three years for families and communities seeking to access death registrations, and extend a fee waiver for those looking to reclaim traditional names.

That announcement came after news that the province would transfer death records of 1,800 school-aged Indigenous children to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

But Mamakwa and others said communities have faced difficulties accessing those records themselves.

Read more: Indigenous leaders call Ottawa’s child compensation appeal a step backwards in reconciliation

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Laforme said people don’t have information about how to go about getting the records, adding the three-year time window for waving fees is also too short.

Garnet Angeconeb, another survivor and an Order of Canada member who spoke at Friday’s news conference, said many survivors still struggle with sharing their painful experiences and argued government timelines to access records should be open-ended.

“It does take time to build courage, it takes time to be able to find that strength,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent upon the government to be more sensitive instead of boxing us into timeframes and timelines.”

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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