FSIN research into residential school remains gets $2 million boost from provincial government

Research informed by experience of elders, knowledge-keepers and survivors, FSIN says, following protocols and ceremony, and could take years to complete

Sgt. Travis Willie wore an orange shirt that read 'Honouring the children who survived Indian Residential Schools and remembering those who didn't.' He was a special guest at the John Diefenbaker Public School's Orange Shirt Day assembly on Sept. 30, 2019. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

The Province of Saskatchewan is providing $2 million to help the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) research undocumented deaths and burials on formerly federally-operated residential school locations in the process.

The FSIN research is being led by elders, knowledge keepers, survivors, their descendants and First Nations communities. The process is expected to take years to complete with proper ceremony and protocol followed at every site.

The province and FSIN are calling on the federal government to meet or exceed the province’s $2 million contributions.

Following the confirmation of 215 undocumented and unmarked remains at the site of a former residential school near Kamloops, the federal government pledged $27 million for First Nations to research possible other sites where similar findings could be made. Already, the number has grown from 215 to over 500.

“We don’t really have a clear signal from the federal government as to what they will be putting in This is the first tranche that we have committed to as far as discovery and research into possible burial sites that are unknown or unmarked,” provincial First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs Minister Don McMorris said Friday.

“If you look at the proportionate number of residential schools here in Saskatchewan to the rest of Canada, we would expect the lion’s share of those funds coming to Saskatchewan. But on this first piece, just on the identification and discovery, we’d expect them to at least match what we have, if not more, and then more to come.

“Thi is unprecedented work. It is top of mind for so many right now. There have been many stories, but never the spotlight that we’re seeing right now. We want to make sure we’re there as a provincial government. We want to be there … as partners to walk this very difficult road that we see in front of us.”

FSIN has already identified the former residential schools of Muskowekwan, Onion Lake St. Anthony’s, Beauval, Guy Hill, Lebret and Sturgeon Landing as possible sites for research, but said that the list of locations t investigate could increase. The funding announced Friday will be used to support research into identified and future sites.

While some of the funding will go towards the use of ground-penetrating radar to look for remains on the sites identified, FSIn Chief Bobby Cameron said a big portion will go to talking to survivors and receiving their input on where to start.

“Protocols and ceremonies have to continue,” he said. The survivors will have a big voice too.”

He said holistic healing, gatherings, input and a lot of dialogue have to happen before, during and after the research process.

“This is going to continue for quite some time,” he said. It may take many, many years.”

Including the guidance of the survivors of the system is important “because they have lived it,” Cameron said.

“they have breathed the witness. They’ve experienced it. It’s still fresh in their minds. That’s why it’s so crucial and critical that they’re fully involved every step of the way. When you hear these stories from their survivors, they’re retelling it like it was yesterday. Their minds are still sharp, their memories are still sharp and their voices are very strong.”

While the seemingly sudden revelation of the scale of loss from residential schools has roused settler Canada into action, for many survivors and Indigenous communities, the presence of undocumented deaths and unmarked graves has long been acknowledged and understood. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked for funding to explore sites where there were suspected unmarked and mass graves. The funding was denied.

“We want to thank all of those survivors and their descendants for what they’ve done for us, for many, many decades telling these stories. Now people are believing them, now we’re in 2021.”

Cameron said the research will help bring home some kids who never returned, but that many more will never be found.

“Those ones will have escaped those institutions, and were lost in the bushes and the country and perished due to the elements. We will never find those ones.”

McMorris said the province walks with FSIN and owes it to those “who were lost to this residential school system and those who continue to suffer from those effects.

“To this day, it remains unclear just how many children may have been laid to rest away from their families and loved ones without cultural ceremonies at residential school sites across the country.”

As more discoveries have been made, more old wounds have been reopened among residential school survivors and their descendants. Helplines and counselling have been offered, “but there’s not enough manpower to reach every survivor,” Cameron said.

“We encourage each and every one of them to reach out or try to connect and let us know how we can help during this emotional time. It’s about healing. It’s about moving forward.”

Prince Albert elder Liz Settee, who traces her roots back to Cumberland House in northern Saskatchewan and Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, said the news has led to a lot of hurt felt by a lot of people.

“The discovery of these bodies, there’s a lot of hurt out there,” Settee said during an interview Friday.

She encouraged anyone struggling to come forward. She doesn’t have all the answers, but Settee said that sometimes, it helps just to talk.

She said many Indigenous people who were disconnected from their heritage or who are otherwise marginalized have long been treated in a way that made them feel ashamed of who they are. Now, “they’re ashamed and hurt.

“Scars from people that have gone to residential school, they’re opened up again. We’re a strong resilient people. We have to stick together. We have to support each other during this time. There are so many of us that didn’t make it through. But those of us that did — we have a place here and we need to claim it.”

The residential school system in Canada operated for more than a century. About 150,000 Indigenous children were removed and separated from their families and communities to attend the schools. About 20 operated in Saskatchewan from the 1880s to the 1990s. Many never returned home. Many more suffered physical and sexual abuse, and were taught to be ashamed of their heritage and of their culture. They were taught that their culture was wrong.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it a cultural genocide.

With so many potential sites to search, Cameron said work will begin right away. Some locations have had protocols and ceremonies already and the searches themselves can start.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of that healing journey,” he said.

“There are still survivors out there who don’t know where their loved one is, they’ve never seen them. They have disappeared,” he said.

“We hear the stories at every single residential school. ‘I haven’t found my little brother. I haven’t seen my little sister. I don’t know where they went They disappeared. The priest or a nun beat them to a pulp. We’ve never seen them again.”