Good morning. Thank you for having me here.
This is an exceptionally important conversation that we're going to have here, and not only in regard to heritage. What I will be presenting strikes at the very heart of our national identity: what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget, and the essential requirement asked of us as Canadians to preserve and remember a history that is deeply troubling, has been deeply damaging, and will continue to affect this country for generations to come.
I come from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. It is the mandated agency that flows directly out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself. I was with the commission from the very beginning.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave us 94 calls to action. These calls to action are intended to help set us on a new path, a better path, in moving forward in the aftermath of what the commission has accurately described as “cultural genocide” inflicted on indigenous peoples in the residential schools.
Central within those calls to action are a number of calls related directly to commemoration. Those commemoration calls relate directly to the creation or establishment of a “national memory” and our ongoing need as a country to make sure we continue to shine light into the darkest corners of our history.
I want to talk to you about three specific broad themes in the calls to action. One is the preservation of residential schools that were built. The second is commemorating the residential schools that were standing. The third is the missing children work.
On that missing children work, I feel obliged to acknowledge the severity of this conversation and as well to acknowledge all of those children who never returned home from the schools and who number well into the thousands.
On the first part, call to action 79 discusses the preservation of residential schools. Right now, we have about 17 residential schools that continue to stand in some form or another in the country, but when we look at the quality of those buildings, or the current status, we can see that there's a wide diversity.
Approaching this in a systemic or tiered approach, we might be able to say that there are maybe four tiers of residential schools.
A tier one school would be where the building is currently occupied and is generally in pretty good shape. Examples of that would be the Shingwauk or Algoma school up in Sault Ste. Marie, the Assiniboia residential school in Winnipeg, or the St. Eugene school out in Cranbrook. Those are locations where the residential school has been converted to other purposes. They're still largely intact, and they're occupied and in generally decent shape.
A tier two school might be a school where there is a good building that still stands and is well suited to preservation but is at risk of deterioration or loss. Examples of these schools would be the school down at Brantford, the “Mush Hole”, which was the first residential school in this country, the Muscowequan school in Saskatchewan, or the Long Plain school out in Manitoba. I think what's very important to discuss in regard to those three schools is that each one of those communities has been actively trying to preserve that school in their community, because they feel it is absolutely essential that they as a community do not lose the evidence and that we as a country do not lose the evidence. Each one of them has been frustrated in many regards in terms of being able to access resources or supports in order to preserve the schools. For the Brantford school in particular, we were very close to losing the roof on that building, and of course when you lose the roof, you largely lose the building itself.
Examples of other schools that exist would be the Birtle, Elkhorn, or Brandon schools, which are in more or less derelict shape and are quite rundown now. Then there's a remaining handful of buildings across the country where some portion of the building still remains—perhaps a gymnasium or a dormitory—but the entire site is not very intact.
As a country, we have a very, very important question to answer: what are we going to do with the remaining built residential schools? Also, how are we going to support communities? How are we going to ensure that communities are empowered to have a say and a role in preserving these locations?
It is important to note that currently there is funding offered to communities in some regards to actually destroy these schools. Some communities have taken up the government's offer to destroy the schools. The St. Michael's school at Alert Bay out in B.C. is one school that was recently destroyed at the request of the community.
The second question we need to answer then, once we address the question of the built fabric or remaining infrastructure of the residential school system, is how we properly commemorate the sites that contained residential schools.
If you travel the road between Saskatoon and Prince Albert, you pass through the community of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. There it had a particularly notorious school. That school burned down many years ago. Now it's a simple open field, and most Canadians would have no idea that there was even a residential school there.
Broadly across the country, there are many, many locations like that. The schools have been relocated, burned down, were demolished. There is very little physical evidence that there was a school there. We have to ask ourselves what we are going to do to commemorate those schools that did exist.
I want to present the members of the committee with a small example. As I drive through the back roads of Manitoba, where I live now, nearly every single homestead school, one-room schoolhouse, has a small cairn erected to it in the countryside. If we can do that for homestead schools, I think we can certainly do that for residential schools across the country, given the severity and the nature of the conversation at hand.
Sadly, and perhaps one of the most devastating elements of the entire school system, is the fact that many children did not return from those schools. Across the country, there are literally countless cemeteries where the remains of children lay in the ground in unmarked graves. We do not know who those children are; we do not know the number of those children.
That Duck Lake school, for example, has a cemetery attached to it. We were recently visiting the Muscowequan school with the community. Horribly—to give you an example of what happens in some of these places—there have been multiple instances across the country where crews have gone in to conduct infrastructure work or dig a sewer line and have unearthed the remains of young children at these school sites.
To be very clear, many schools had multiple cemeteries. There are perhaps as many as 400 cemetery locations across this country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not able to get to every single one of these cemeteries. There is no broad national preservation framework to address these cemetery locations, and these are children we're talking about in these gravesites.
To put a bit of a capstone on that, and respecting the confidence of the community—I won't tell you the exact location—in some areas of the country there are human remains, or the remains of children, that are starting to come out of the ground due to the overall neglect and non-sustainability of the cemetery system across the country.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, in its calls to action, was directed to continue the work of identifying the children who never returned home from the schools. We've been asked to create a missing children register, and there was a call to action regarding some funding for that. We were very fortunate to receive an announcement regarding core funding for the centre, but some of these projects—I have to be clear—are a little bigger and broader than we're able to sustain in terms of our core operations. Not only at the centre, but more broadly as a country, we require specialized strategies to deal with a very specialized issue in this country, and a particularly troubling issue, that presents us with an opportunity to remember.
The positive thing is that we see people understanding. We see that Canadians broadly understand there is an essential social justice element to this preservation work that needs to happen. This is a history that we cannot forget. Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire, the gang from The Secret Path that many of you have seen, donated their funds to the national centre. Those funds are intended to be targeted at education and ongoing efforts to commemorate missing children.
We are working up to the point of being able to flow some of those funds out to communities. I have to be clear that it's some money, but it's not a lot of money. The positive thing is that we see Canadians broadly supporting the ongoing efforts, and we continue to receive donations on a daily basis, basically to support this.
There is one thing that I want to leave you with. What we remember, how we remember it, will tell the story about how we confront our future as Canadians. It just so happened that last night, as I was putting my head down on the pillow, I was flipping through the news and came across an example of a former politician in Europe who was convicted of the crime of Holocaust denial. Part of his sentence was to visit five concentration camps and to write a report on what he saw and experienced. We need the built infrastructure in this country to fully document the the cultural genocide that has been inflicted on indigenous families and indigenous children.
We know that we live in a society that continues to deny the harshness of what occurred in the residential schools, and it will only be through preserving some of the buildings and properly acknowledging, remembering, and commemorating those children who never returned home from the schools that we're going to have a fair shot at evolving into the country that I think we all want this country to be.