THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
OTTAWA, Tuesday, March 21, 2023
The Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples met with videoconference this day at 9 a.m. [ET] to examine the federal government’s constitutional, treaty, political and legal responsibilities to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and any other subject concerning Indigenous Peoples.
Senator Brian Francis (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Honourable senators, I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation and is now home to many other First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples from across Turtle Island.
I am Mi’kmaw Senator Brian Francis from Epekwitk, also known as Prince Edward Island, and I am the chair of the Committee on Indigenous Peoples. Before we begin our meeting, I will ask committee members in attendance to introduce themselves by stating their name and province or territory.
Senator Arnot: David Arnot, Saskatchewan. I live in Saskatoon, which is in the heart of Treaty 6 territory.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: Patti LaBoucane-Benson, Alberta, Treaty 6 territory.
Senator Hartling: Nancy Hartling, New Brunswick.
Senator Coyle: Mary Coyle from Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Senator Tannas: Scott Tannas, Alberta.
Senator Sorensen: Karen Sorensen from Banff, Alberta, Treaty 7 territory.
Senator Greenwood: Margo Greenwood, British Columbia, Treaty 6 territory.
Senator Audette: [Innu-Aimun spoken]
The Chair: Before we begin, I want to mention that this meeting will touch on the residential school system and its lasting impact, which could be triggering and distressing to some viewers. If you require support, please note there are services available 24-7 and toll-free through the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, which is available for survivors and anyone affected at 1-866-925-4419; and the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which is available to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people across Canada at 1-855-242-3310, or the online chat at, hopeforwellness.ca.
I would now like to introduce the witnesses on our first panel. From the office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, we have Kimberly Murray, Independent Special Interlocutor; Wendelyn Johnson, Executive Director; and Donald Worme, Independent Legal Counsel. Wela’lin and thank you all for joining us today.
Ms. Murray will provide opening remarks of approximately five minutes, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Senators.
Kimberly Murray, Independent Special Interlocutor, Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools: Thank you.
Good morning, senators. As noted, my name is Kimberly Murray, I am Mohawk and a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation, located in what is now known as Quebec, as Senator Audette mentioned. I would first like to say niawen’kó:wato Elder Barbara Cameron for doing an opening prayer for us before we started this important conversation. I would also like to acknowledge that we’re on the unceded, unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Nation, and I recognize that Ottawa has been and continues to be the home of many First Nations, Métis and Inuit. I too lived in Ottawa at one point as a First Nations woman, and I am very honoured to have had the hospitality of the Algonquin Nation while I lived here.
I want to say thank you again to all the senators for inviting me to share with you about my mandate about the Independent Special Interlocutor and some of the work that we have done in the seven months since I have been in this position. As noted, I’m joined with two of my colleagues, Wendelyn Johnson, Executive Director, and Donald Worme, who is one of my legal counsel, and he’s going to answer all of the really hard questions you are going to throw at me.
I wanted to start off by talking about when Tk’emlúps announced the recovery of 215 children in May 2022, the Government of Canada immediately said that we’re going to appoint an Independent Special Interlocutor. Many people wondered what the heck is an interlocutor, what do they do and what does it mean?
It took about a year for the government to get the mandate in place. I understand, from speaking with Minister Lametti and his colleagues, that a number of Indigenous leaderships were consulted on what the mandate should include and what it shouldn’t include. I was appointed for a two-year mandate, which commenced in June 2022.
As I started my work, one of the things that was really important to me as the Independent Special Interlocutor was to hear from elders and survivors about how they wanted us to guide our work. What were our guiding principles? I would like to share with you our guiding principles that have been established. I think it will give a better understanding of the work we are doing as we move forward.
The first guiding principle is that the bodies and spirits of missing Indigenous children must be treated with honour, respect and dignity. That is so important because those children were not given the honour, respect and dignity that they deserved when they were apprehended and taken to these Indian residential schools. We want to make sure that we bring that honour back to them on their deaths and at their burial sites.
We’re also guided by the principle that survivors have to be honoured and acknowledged for raising public awareness about the truths of unmarked burials of children who died at Indian residential schools. We know survivors and community members have been speaking about these burials for decades. We know that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, also known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, wrote an entire volume about the missing children and unmarked burials, and in that volume, the TRC identified a number of communities where children’s remains had been recovered and found. We have to honour those survivors that have been raising this, over and over again, to a country that hasn’t been listening.
We hope the country is listening now. I know, as I speak to communities, that they are experiencing the violence of denialism. Every time an announcement of anomalies, reflections or recoveries are made, communities are being inundated by people emailing or phoning them to attack them and saying, “This didn’t happen.” I sit here and tell you this happened. I have seen the records. I have seen the photographs of children in coffins. We all need to fight this denialism, and it shouldn’t be left to the survivors to have to do that.
The next guiding principle that I want to speak about is that Indigenous families and communities have a right to know what happened to their children who died in Indian residential schools. That right to know, that right to the truth, as you all know, is a recognized international right. Survivors, communities and Canadians have a right to the truth. That includes a right to the records and to access those records. We have an ongoing challenge in this country with getting the documentation from the federal government, the provincial governments, the universities, the municipalities — the list goes on and on — where these records are. Communities have a right to that truth, and they have the right to have sovereignty over their own data and information.
The fourth guiding principle that I want to let you know about that guides our work is that the search for unmarked burials and the recovery of missing children must be governed by Indigenous law. It must be governed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it must be governed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We know the UN declaration has many articles that are applicable to the work of recovering the missing children. We have to give life to those articles in the UN declaration act. We know Indigenous peoples and communities have laws that govern burial grounds. They have laws that govern the holding of their stories and their experiences. They have laws around protecting the land. It’s time that Indigenous laws govern.
Finally, the fifth guiding principle that I want to speak to is that searches and investigations must follow the truth. This means we have to trace the movement of each of the children using the records, using testimonies from survivors that speak to the children that were brought to the Indian Residential Schools, that were there one day and then gone the next. We have to follow where they were sent. We know — and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission spoke about this — children were taken from the Indian Residential Schools to the Indian hospitals.
What we also know and what we’re learning is they were also taken to many other institutions where they died. They were taken to provincial hospitals, mental health hospitals and provincial reformatories. There are searches of those grounds all across the country that communities are interested in doing. And we have some problems because Canada will only fund searches of grounds of former residential schools that are recognized under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement — 140 institutions, 145 when we add the five that were recently added under the Anderson agreement. There are many more institutions where children are buried.
Charles Camsell Hospital — I heard many of the senators are from Alberta — is a well-known hospital. Children are buried on those grounds. We know the Government of Canada and the church entities had a policy. They would not pay to return a child to their home community. It wasn’t just at Indian Residential Schools. It was at any institution where an Indigenous child was placed that the Government of Canada was paying for their maintenance.
Those are our guiding principles. I have a mandate to engage with survivors, Indigenous leadership and organizations to hear from them about their barriers, what is getting in the way of their finding this truth. What are the barriers stopping them from getting on the lands to do the searches that they need to do? We know we don’t have legislation in Canada to protect these burial grounds. We don’t have legislation in Canada to grant access to these grounds if they are privately owned. We have a big gap federally in the legislation.
What we have is a lot of provincial legislation that doesn’t speak to each other, that isn’t enforced. What we have are industries that know what the law is but are not abiding by the law, and we have no enforcement.
My mandate is to make recommendations for a new legal framework moving forward, to protect these burial grounds, to assist communities in the sacred work of recovering the children, to help them get access to their records that are housed in colonial institutions across Turtle Island.
I’m told to incorporate the UN declaration into the new legal framework.
I’m told to work with the national advisory committee, which I’m sure Stephanie Scott will speak about when she presents to you on the next panel.
I’m told to support the advancement of Calls to Action 71 through 76, which are in volume 4 of the TRC’s Missing Children and Unmarked Burials volume.
I’m told my mandate is more than just the Indian residential school sites. It includes other associated sites.
I’m told to make recommendations on how we can return land to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. We know many of the lands were expropriated to build these institutions on them. We know land transfers were done to church entities, and when we closed the residential schools, we didn’t return those lands to the rightful landholders.
I have restrictions on my mandate. I can’t compel records. I can only ask, which is okay, because I am an order-in-council, or OIC appointment, and if I get records, they fall under the same colonial laws that Library and Archives Canada and the federal government fall under. So that doesn’t get the records into the hands of the people that need them.
I’m told I can’t interfere in any criminal or civil matters.
I issued a progress report. I have an interim report coming out in June of this year, and then I’ll have a final report in June of 2024.
There are five things I want to speak to you about, if I may, and I touched on some of them as I was talking about our guiding principles. In our progress report, we talked about common concerns that we have heard across the country. I use that language, “common concerns,” because that’s what I am told to do in my mandate.
As I said, access to records: Federal and provincial privacy laws are in the way. Even when they are not in the way, institutions are relying on them and putting them in the way. We need to fix this.
Insufficient funding: We recently heard and are pleased that Canada has extended its funding to communities until 2025. That’s not long enough. The work of recovering the children will take 10 to 20 years. We cannot treat the sacred work as a program. Canada needs to stand up and say to Indigenous communities that we are here to support you until this work is complete. Communities were faced with having to lay off some of their team members because they didn’t know if the funding was going to be extended. They can’t keep continuing to fund this in this way.
There have been delays in analyzing the data. We have communities doing ground searches, ground-penetrating radar, LiDAR, electro-magnetometry, all kinds of technologies. We do not have the expertise in Canada to keep up with the demand. We need to train Indigenous people. We need to work with our Indigenous technical institutes to get our people trained in this area.
We need access to land. This is what keeps me awake many nights, thinking about how some things could escalate. We have landowners that aren’t allowing survivors onto properties, even to do ceremony, let alone to search the grounds. My office has had to write letters and have meetings with landowners to try to convince them that this is the right thing to do. We have landowners that have campers on top of the burials of children — known burials. We don’t have any law to put a stop to this.
And finally, the big one, justice and accountability: Everywhere we go, where’s the justice and where’s the accountability? How do we hold the state and the church entities accountable for creating the conditions where these children died?
We know the International Criminal Court has refused to investigate burials and the unmarked graves and the missing children in Canada. They refuse because they say their jurisdiction only applies from 2002, when they were created. I don’t think that’s a good enough answer. The international community has failed us. I spoke to the special rapporteur and raised this very issue. Our international mechanisms aren’t helping us.
Who are the right police to take on such an investigation, the RCMP, OPP, Quebec provincial police service, municipal police services? Almost every single police service in this country was involved in Indian Residential Schools, apprehending the children, taking them to the schools, collecting them when they ran away and bringing them back, failing to do proper criminal investigations when leadership and families complained about abuses that were happening in the institutions, failing to respond when children went missing and not investigating. This is all written about in the TRC report. So who are the right police?
Where are we as a country with First Nations policing? Maybe First Nations police services might be the answer. They are the only police services in this country that weren’t involved in Indian Residential Schools, but we don’t fund them properly. We don’t have legislation. They are not considered an essential service yet. We need some movement around First Nations policing, because I see an important role for them in the future investigation of missing children.
I know I have taken time. I will speak about one last thing and then open it up to questions and comments.
Canada recently contracted the International Commission on Missing Persons, a contract for $2.2 million, to come here to our territories and talk about DNA and exhumation. I raised concerns about that contract. It was done behind closed doors with no consultation with any of the national Indigenous organizations, with no consultation with any leadership and no consultation with survivors. They are to prepare a report by June. I’m told they are going to extend the timeline after they do 35 community engagement sessions, and they are going to make recommendations for a new framework moving forward.
We have told Minister Miller and Minister Lametti that this is a flawed process and there needs to be some changes to this agreement.
I’m also very concerned because the International Commission on Missing Persons has no expertise working with First Nations people, no expertise working with Indigenous people around the world. They told me in a meeting that they didn’t know anything about section 35 of our Constitution, about treaty rights, about Aboriginal rights. They don’t have the cultural competency to do engagement sessions. There are better mechanisms with the United Nations — which they are not — that could have done this consultation. So I continue to raise concerns.
They have already started their work. We need to fix that agreement. It is public. Canada wasn’t going to make it public. It is public now on the ICMP website after we put some pressure on them to make it public.
I have been holding gatherings. We’re about to host our fourth national gathering in Toronto next week. We have held gatherings in British Columbia, one in Edmonton and one in Winnipeg. We go to a lot of places. We will be in Toronto next to talk about the importance of Indigenous law and how we incorporate Indigenous law into a new legal framework. Then we’ll be going to Montréal to hold a gathering there in September. Our final gathering will be in the Far North. We are still trying to determine the location; likely the eastern Arctic.
As we do these gatherings, in between, I attend and meet with survivors directly, with the teams that are doing the sacred work of recovery, meeting with leadership and attending assemblies to make sure everyone is aware of the work that we’re doing. We have also posted a call for submissions. Anyone — any Canadian, any community, any survivor, any organization — can make a written submission to us on any of the areas of our mandate, and that call for submission is on our website.
With that, I am going to stop and open it up to comments and questions, and defer them all to my colleague Don Worme.
The Chair: Thank you, Ms. Murray. The floor is open for questions. I’ll start by asking one.
You briefly touched on this during your remarks, but I want to ask if you could expand on how current legal, federal and provincial frameworks do not adequately support survivors and their families and communities in work to search, identify, recover, protect and commemorate. What specific kinds of legislative changes are we looking at to ensure consistency with UNDRIP?
Ms. Murray: Certainly. I can give you a few examples.
In Ontario, for example, we have a whole mix of different legislation. We have the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, we have the Cemeteries Act, we have the Coroners Act, we have federal Criminal Code legislation, but what we don’t have is legislation that comes together and speaks specifically about Indigenous burial grounds. In the United States, there is a federal legislation. We have been hearing from people and communities in the U.S. who aren’t happy with this law — that it’s not strong enough, that there isn’t strong enough enforcement. Our office is looking at that legislation, and we’re trying to see if there are some things we can borrow from the United States that we might be able to implement here in our constitutional situation that we have.
There is no federal legislation for communities to get onto the lands. I think I mentioned that in my earlier comments. We have situations where people have to go to court. We have a case right now happening in Quebec, where the Mohawk Mothers had to go to court to get an injunction to stop the development on the grounds of the old Royal Victoria Hospital, where the Allan Memorial Institute was. We know experiments were done at the Allan Memorial. There is a survivor that says there are burials behind the Allan Memorial.
The Mohawk Mothers went to court seeking an injunction against the Province of Quebec, the city of Montréal, McGill University, and Canada, and they were successful in getting that injunction. The judge told the parties that they had to sit down and put a proper archeological plan in place to search those grounds for burials. As I said, there is a survivor who provided evidence to the court that when she was at the Allan Memorial, she witnessed people with shovels behind the institution.
Do we have to go to court to get injunctions to stop development on lands where there are burials? There has to be a better way.
There is no legislation. We have legislation in provinces that tell developers that if they find remains, they have to report that. That’s too late. In my respectful opinion, it’s too late when the shovels hit the bones of our ancestors. There has to be an earlier process to stop the development. We know that when those shovels hit the bones of our ancestors, and they don’t report it to the coroner’s office or the police, they rebury those bones and don’t tell anyone. We have examples of this across the country. Then they get off, and they’re not convicted or charged.
We need to bring all these laws together. We need to have proper penalties. I get asked this question a lot by Indigenous people. We don’t need more laws. I get that comment. We don’t need more laws; we have our laws. We have our Indigenous laws. My response to that is: We actually do need more laws because we need to tell non-Indigenous Canadians what they have to do, what their legal responsibilities are and we need to hold them accountable for their actions. That’s what’s missing. Indigenous law isn’t missing; it exists.
The Chair: Thank you for that, Ms. Murray.
Senator Arnot: Thank you to the elder for the prayers this morning, and thank you to the witnesses for coming here today. You have a very daunting and comprehensive mandate and a very short time period within which to fill that mandate. You’re dealing with very sensitive matters. I’m happy that you said I should be asking Mr. Worme some questions, because when I was a judge and he was a counsel, he never had any trouble answering any of my questions, hence my white hair.
Your presentation has been very compelling and informative. The fact that you have a restricted mandate speaks volumes. Someone needs to absolutely have a mandate to compel the production of records. How else are you going to get to the truth? This is Canada’s national shame and what you’re talking about speaks volumes about that very thing. You talked about the need for justice and accountability. I think that the fundamental base of this is the fact that the executive branch of government has never been held to account in a real way. I look at the federal government complying with section 35 of the Constitution, treaty rights and Indigenous rights, missing the boat and missing the principle of honouring the Crown. The Crown has no honour. The principle of the fiduciary obligation to Indigenous people, the principle of implementing treaties according to the spirit and intent of treaties — a lot is missing.
Having said that, I’m wondering what your thoughts may be. I’m really happy that you can make a report about a new legal framework. I think that can be very compelling. I look forward to the interim and final reports.
Do you agree that at the heart of this is the fact that the executive branch of government needs to be held to account and there needs to be a mechanism so that you can get to the truth so all Canadians can see the truth? Although I think the truth is fairly evident at the moment, I’m glad that you’re doing the work and it will be very informative for everyone, I’m sure.
I’m wondering two things. One, what can this committee do to help you in meeting your mandate and augmenting any of your work? More importantly, do you believe that this committee should be looking at exploring either existing mechanisms to hold the executive branch of government to account or looking at new mechanisms to hold the executive branch of government to account?
Too often, as you mention, everything goes to litigation. Mr. Worme is a successful litigator, but he’s also very successful in his work with the Ipperwash commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’m really interested to see what you might say about what this committee can do to look at this fundamental flaw that demonstrates the broken relationship, which is holding the executive branch of government to account.
Ms. Murray: I’ll just say a couple of words in response, and then I’ll pass it over to my colleague, Mr. Worme. Survivors keep saying this: We have to have some accountability. We have said in this country, over and over, it was genocide. It was genocide. Senator Audette said that in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Former senator Murray Sinclair said it. A former Supreme Court of Canada Justice said it. Most recently, Canada said it and passed that motion. So what now? Where is the accountability? If the International Criminal Court isn’t going to take steps to hold the state accountable, then absolutely, we need to find another mechanism. I agree, there hasn’t been any accountability.
I never speak about my mandate in the sense of asking for more things. I’m too focused on doing what the survivors are asking me. I agreed to take this position within the given time frame and funding, and I am doing everything I can to meet my mandate. That’s my decision and my integrity, because I should never have taken this if I wasn’t going to prepare a report by 2024. I do think — and I have said this to Minister Lametti — that the work is going to need to continue. I need to turn my mind to where it will be housed. It will need to continue, absolutely.
Donald Worme, Independent Legal Counsel, Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools: Thank you very much for that question, Senator Arnot. I do remember you as a judge. I don’t remember if I had much success there, however.
Senator Arnot: You did.
Mr. Worme: Be that as it may, we do appreciate that this committee is desirous of assisting the special interlocutor on achieving her mandate. It’s a difficult mandate that she has in front of her, with an extremely short fuse, if I can put it that way. She’s absolutely right, there was a genocide perpetrated on Indigenous people. Indigenous children — not just Indigenous people, but children. It’s the very heart of the UN’s declaration and description of what genocide is. Currently, we know that there is a despot in the world with a warrant out for him for precisely the same kind of behaviour — taking children and removing them from their community and taking them elsewhere. What do they call that? In this country, we leave survivors to investigate their own genocide and that can’t be the case.
This government has repeatedly stated that the most important relationship for this government is the relationship with Indigenous peoples. We’ve heard that time and time again, but we have not seen the rubber hit the pavement on that. Again, I say that we are grateful to this committee for your stated intention to assist the special interlocutor in attempting to achieve that part of the mandate.
There is a direct relationship between the executive branch as it currently exists and First Nations — at least, there ought to be with First Nations leadership and Indigenous leadership across this country. It has not, unfortunately, resulted in any kind of progress that we can put our fingers upon. The progress that we have seen is incremental. We don’t have the luxury for incremental movement in this country. We do not have that luxury any longer. The work that I’ve been engaged in, and the work that the special interlocutor has been engaged in — she was, as you all know, the executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The most important relationship is with the federal government, yet it did not compel them to release records. Their signature on the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, under which they agreed to provide all relevant records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission relative to Indian residential schools was not complied with, and neither did the church entities comply.
It is extremely frustrating, to say the least.
We do believe that the executive branch has to be held accountable. We do believe that they have that obligation, the existing fiduciary obligations and obligations beyond that. They have treaty obligations, and perhaps that’s what gives rise to the fiduciary. But we say that the sacred treaties — those of you from treaty regions will understand this — have not been complied with. It is not just the executive branch of the federal government. Now we have “little brother” — the provincial governments — insisting in Saskatchewan and Alberta, for example, that they have sovereignty over the lands and resources. We have difficulty enough as it is accessing lands where Indigenous children are buried under the presumed sovereignty of the little brother provincial governments. They weren’t party to treaties, yet they are insisting that they will have a piece of this. How do we resist that? I think the federal government has an obligation to step in and acknowledge their obligations and actually prove that this is an important relationship. Thank you.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I have so many things I would love to talk to you about. The Charles Camsell Hospital is one of them, but I’m going to keep this short because my colleagues have questions.
The reality is that those burial sites are probably crime scenes. On the one hand, you had children who most likely died of abuse, which would be akin to murder. On the other hand, you have children who were left, for example, with TB to die in their beds, which, by any law, would be neglect. I hear you saying that you would like to consider a legal framework where justice could be found from families who had children who died from either murder or neglect. That would probably require us to exhume bodies. But you also said that we need to follow Indigenous law and the laws of the people whose family members are buried, which may mean that they don’t want those bodies exhumed, touched or handled because of their own specific laws.
Can there be justice without exhumation?
Ms. Murray: Thank you, senator, for that important question. I believe there can. I ask this question a lot: How do we investigate genocide? What’s needed? I’m told that we have to look for the patterns. That’s why, in the work that I’ve been doing with bringing people together where they’re talking to one another, we’re starting to see some very disturbing patterns that could, in my view, point to wrongdoing, criminal wrongdoing. We have to keep investigating those patterns. You have to be mindful of Indigenous law and Indigenous peoples’ rights to determine whether they want to exhume or not, but if those patterns connect and we may have one location where they do exhumation, we don’t have to exhume them all.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: One of the problems with this dragging on is, for example, my very good friend, George Bretton, who was a survivor of Blue Quills Residential School, who has since passed. We have him, from my past job, on film talking about being one of the children who held those shovels and dug those graves for his fellow classmates. Native Counselling Services of Alberta had him on camera talking about that, but so many of the children who had to dig those graves are gone. So I just wanted to shout out to George Bretton and to those elders because they’re passing with regular frequency every day, and we need to somehow capture their testimony.
Senator Hartling: This is a difficult presentation to hear, but it’s important that we hear it and that you know we stand with you. I’m thinking about the trauma experienced not only by the people you’re meeting with but yourselves. How do you deal with that? There’s so much. Each day you’re learning things, and I’m sure at your office you’re getting calls and emails. How do you deal with that?
Ms. Murray: First, I just want to speak to the issue of trauma generally for the communities and for survivors. When I spoke about the common concerns and the lack of funding, the lack of funding to address the trauma is one of the main things we keep hearing about. Some communities were told early on that they couldn’t use the funding they received to hire trauma support workers on their team and that they had to use the services already in existence. I mean, this is a unique trauma on top of other traumas. The ambiguous laws that communities are facing, they don’t even know what to call their trauma. It’s important that the country stand with survivors in communities to help the mental wellness of the community.
We’ve heard over and over again that we need to rely on Indigenous healers, and they’re not being supported by the way the funding works from the Government of Canada and that we only rely on Western medicine. So there is a call from communities that healers and elders need to be brought in to address this trauma.
For our own personal trauma, we work with our elders and survivors. When you stand with people and work alongside those who have resisted and are resilient, it gives you the strength to move forward.
I appreciate the concern for our office, but I can tell you that there is no greater reward for doing this work than helping someone find their loved one, which I do almost on a weekly basis.
I’m going to give you an example. This keeps happening. The family doesn’t know where their loved one is buried. They were taken to a sanatorium, an Indian residential school. They were just told — and I know Senator Audette knows this all too well in Quebec — that they died. I can get the name of that individual, I can log into the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, find the name of the student, find a record, which will lead me down to another record, which will lead me to ancestry.com. Why are families having to go to my office to find the death certificate of their loved one on ancestry.com when the provinces and territories won’t just provide those records?
And then those records will lead you to where they’re buried, hundreds of miles away from their home community. We are now seeing families going to cemeteries. I get this a lot. The children aren’t missing; they’re buried in the cemeteries. They’re missing because the families were never told where they’re buried. Every Indigenous family needs to know where their child is buried. When we find that and we know that they’re going to have a little bit closure now, they know the truth and they have some answers, that’s what keeps us going.
Senator Hartling: I appreciate that because it definitely is a difficult trauma to deal with. Thank you.
Senator Sorensen: Thank you to the elders for the prayer this morning and thank you to the witnesses for assisting me in my ongoing learning and education.
Following up on Senator LaBoucane-Benson’s question and your most recent response, I want to look to the future in 10 to 20 years with the hope that the goals of your mandate are successfully completed at the highest level. What would that report say specifically about the remains of all the lost children? What will bring some degree of peace to the communities with respect to Indian residential schools?
Ms. Murray: Well, there would be Indigenous status sovereignty over the records. The records would be in the hands of Indigenous communities. There would be protection of the land. We wouldn’t have trailers on top of the burials of children. We wouldn’t be going to court to get injunctions to stop development on burial grounds. We would have a mechanism that is Indigenous-led, Indigenous-controlled, an Indigenous missing persons commission, with trained Indigenous people to run it, that applies Indigenous law and has the authority.
Senator Sorensen: Thank you.
Senator Coyle: Thank you for your testimony this morning and also for the very important work that you’re all doing.
I have so many questions as well, and time is always a constraint. I’ll ask very two quick ones. One is about this technical arrangement between the Government of Canada and the International Commission on Missing Persons.
What do you think can and should be done to right this wrong — clearly, there is a problem here — and bring this together with what you’re doing, if that’s what you’re saying is the appropriate thing?
My second question is looking at your mandate, I see that two of the aspects are about law, and the first one is really engagement and facilitation with the communities and survivors.
With the first one, not taking away from all the legal stuff that has to happen, are there things that the federal government could be doing better now, particularly on those relationships with the provinces which have been so problematic, to assist you in achieving that aspect of your mandate?
Ms. Murray: Thank you for that question. Early on in my mandate, I did ask Minister Lametti to have me present to the federal-provincial-territorial government meeting of ministers of Justice. It was quite early in my mandate, and I raised some issues and concerns in relation to the provincial governments’ role in relationship to the residential schools and how they can support the work of recovering the children. I also asked to make the same presentation to the Indigenous affairs ministers. That has not been granted to me yet.
I was a little disappointed with the ministers of Justice, because I specifically asked them to set up a mechanism for my office to have a one-window entry into the provinces and territories, and they referred me to the Aboriginal working group. I have a lot of experience with that working group, because I used to be Assistant Deputy Attorney General for the Province of Ontario. It is mostly a group of criminal law expertise. They do not have the expertise in this area.
We did send an information request to all the provinces, territories and the federal government, asking specific questions about their laws, what they have that they may change, what they’re working on, how they’re supporting communities, how they’ve implemented the TRC Calls to Action, how they have implemented the Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. We continue to wait to get those replies. It will inform our work as we move forward.
I do think there is a lot the federal government can do to help with those relationships with the provinces. Some provinces or some parts of some provinces have been very helpful.
Off the top of my head, the coroner’s office in Ontario is doing amazing work right now. He has boxes of bones, remains, and he is working to reinvestigate those. He is going to map them and see if they’re near or on grounds of former residential schools. We need all the provinces to do that work.
If the federal government needs to support the provinces in that work, then that support should be there. Many of you will remember when the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry was created, Canada funded provinces to set up the Family Information Liaison Units. I established the unit in Ontario. When I was working there, we helped three families find burials of their children that were at residential schools. There is a precedent to set up some support for provinces to support communities in the work that they’re doing to recover the children.
On the ICMP, we specifically asked for the agreement to just be thrown out. We were told no; it’s already signed. There is a mechanism to make amendments.
I worked with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. We wrote to Canada about where we want to see some amendments. We have yet to see them. We’ve had a couple of meetings.
What disturbs me is they’ve started their work, knowing that the agreement is flawed and hasn’t been fixed yet. That concerns me. They’re out there right now talking to communities.
I find them a little misleading. When you put the word “international” in the name, when you say you’re at The Hague, you’re creating ideas to communities that somehow they’re the justice, that somehow they’re the UN, that somehow they’re the International Criminal Court. These are all discussions that are misleading, in my view. They’re an organization with a board of all non-Indigenous people and mostly White people. They’re scientists, great scientists, but they just don’t know how to work with Indigenous people.
That wasn’t in my mandate.
Senator Coyle: Thank you.
Mr. Worme: Thank you for that question. Further to that, Senator Coyle, one of the things that we would want to see is some sort of parity. Early on in the Special Interlocutor’s mandate, we looked around the globe for other types of entities that were engaged in this sort of sacred work, and we found very few, the ICMP being one of them.
We did find one, and that is the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, or FAFG. They have been engaged in this work for the past 30 years. They are dealing, essentially, with Indigenous people — the Mayans who were caught up in their internal conflicts. Thus far, they have exhumed, identified and repatriated in excess of 7,000 individuals — and many more to go — of an estimated 40,000 individuals who were disappeared in their internal conflicts.
You will know from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, from former chief commissioner, Murray Sinclair — your fellow senator at one point — his estimate was something in the nature of 25,000 Indigenous children were lost. As the Special Interlocutor has said, the work of searching for and identifying and potentially repatriating these children to their communities, to their families, is going to take a long time.
We would ask that the federal government give parity to Indigenous-led organizations, like FAFG, that are prepared to lend their expertise and knowledge to our communities, that we have the people within our communities. We have young people who can be trained, who are anxious, who are thirsting to do this work, who are competent. They can do it with cultural proximity and cultural competence that cannot be delivered by some organization that pops out with the word “international,” as the Special Interlocutor has said. It has to be closer to home than that, and it has to be Indigenous led. That is a difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around, it appears. It isn’t for Indigenous people, but it seems to be a very difficult concept for the non-Indigenous world to be able to grapple with.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson, I think this goes partly back to your question about the exhumations and that there is a reluctance in some communities, certainly, to go that far, to exhumations, because it violates, perhaps, cultural protocols and so on. But if they knew that there was this kind of care, the kind of care that the experts from FAFG told us about, the ceremonies that they have in washing the bones and ensuring the cultural protocols of those people are observed and respected, their repatriation efforts can be carried out in a way that brings honour to those who were disappeared. We can do the same thing here. We have the people and the ability to do so.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Worme.
Unfortunately, we are out of time. My apologies to the senators who did not get to ask a question. I will put you at the top of the list for the next panel.
I would like to thank our witnesses, Kimberly Murray, Wendelyn Johnson and Donald Worme from the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools. Thank you for joining us today.
On our second panel, and we have Stephanie Scott, Executive Director, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; and Elder Barbara Cameron, who is part of the Survivors Circle that provides guidance and advice to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Wela’lin. Thank you both for joining us today. Ms. Scott will provide opening remarks of approximately five minutes, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session with senators.
Stephanie Scott, Executive Director, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: Good morning. [Indigenous language spoken] My Anishinaabe name is Red Cloud Woman, my family is from the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation in Manitoba and I am of the Marten Clan. I’m the daughter of a survivor and a Sixties Scoop survivor, and I have the privilege to work on Treaty 1 territory, the original lands of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Dene, Oji-Cree, homeland of the Red River Métis, and home to many Inuit peoples.
I am grateful to be meeting with you on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation, and I want to say thank you to the honourable senators for this opportunity. Thank you to Kimberly Murray, Special Interlocutor, and her office for continuing to support our work.
I would like to begin by giving the floor to my mentor and colleague, Elder Barbara Cameron, and say thank you for her prayers this morning. She is a member of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Survivors Circle. Ms. Cameron has also been working with us since the days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a statement gatherer and an interpreter, and has spoken with hundreds of survivors across the land.
Barbara Cameron, Survivor of Residential School, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: Meegwetch.
[Indigenous language spoken]
I’ll say that in English. Hello, my relatives. My first spirit name is Female Leader of the Thunderbirds. My second spirit name is Hole in the Sky. I am Anishinaabekwe and I am a Minweyweywigaan Midewiwin, and we have our own lodge. Currently, I’m carrying third degree Indigenous ways, and I’m really happy to be here. I never thought in my lifetime I would ever be here.
I’m a survivor of residential school. There are not too many of us left, and I’m really honoured to sit, as Ms. Scott said, with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation as a survivor.
I’m from Long Plain Reserve, Treaty 1, in Manitoba. The original name of Manitoba is manidoobaa-akiing and that’s how we originally know it. As I sit here, I would like to say that I’m guided by our ancestors who didn’t realize this day with you, but I sit here to be the voice, if I can.
I want to first acknowledge all of you, all of you on this committee, and I particularly want to extend my greetings to First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, champions, who sit as honourable members of the Senate.
As you know, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is a child born from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The NCTR was created to preserve all of the statements and other records that the TRC had gathered and to continue the TRC’s work of telling the truth about the residential school systems and how it impacted generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis families and communities. I was with the TRC when we first began our sacred work.
I want to commend members of Parliament for having adopted a unanimous motion recognizing that the violence inflicted on our children, our families and our cultures by the residential school system meets the definition of a word that was already used here, which is genocide under international law. This acknowledgement of the essential truths of the residential school system underlies the very profound importance of ensuring that all Canadians know this lived history and can work together to ensure that these crimes are never repeated.
The Survivors Flag now flies over Parliament Hill. Again, I was there to watch it being raised. This flag, designed with survivors, is an important reminder of the strength, the power and the resilience of Indigenous culture and teachings. The flag says, “We did not allow the residential school system to destroy us, and we will heal, and we will restore our languages, cultures and traditions. We are not what happened to us.”
Stephanie Scott, our trailblazer from the time that I remember, can tell you more about the significant progress that’s been made in accessing important records that were never released to the TRC, about the incredible growth in our educational programs and about the importance of securing long-term funding that’s been committed by the federal government.
Overall, we are making great strides, but there are also troubling signs that we are challenged with daily. The Doctrine of Discovery mindset and attitude — you all know this well — the thought of dominance continues to challenge us every day, the colonial conquest mindset. The more that residential schools are in the headlines, the more backlash we seem to be facing. There are people out there who continue to deny this truth, who don’t want to admit that the schools inflicted these harms on Indigenous peoples and that the schools were purposely designed to do that. These deniers look at the accomplishments of individual survivors and, instead of acknowledging the strength and resilience of those individuals, they say, “Look at all the good the residential school did for you.” What they don’t see is the intergenerational loss of our source of being, the loss of our connection to all Creation, our loss of our languages, our cultures, our identity amongst our families and our communities. These deniers ignore the established facts about residential school history, including the documented reality that most children who died in the schools were never returned to their families. Instead, the deniers called the search for unmarked burials “fake news,” and it has really become more and more common in the news to hear “fake news.” These residential school deniers are not representative of most Canadians. We know this. Denialism is a fringe movement, but it includes individuals with power and influence to be quoted in the media and abroad. And we all know by now how fringe movements can gain momentum if they are given enough attention and airtime.
When Kimberly Murray spoke earlier, I just wanted to say that as a child of the Brandon Residential School in Manitoba, I remember playing around the graves. I remember that. But I was a child. And so my focus was on playing, of course.
I want to end my remarks by urging all members of this committee to stand with us, to stand with survivors and with the NCTR, in ensuring that the truth of residential school institutions cannot and will not be denied and forgotten.
The Chair: Thank you, Elder Cameron, for your very powerful remarks.
Ms. Scott: Meegwetch and thank you to Elder Cameron for your words.
I do want to share a few details of the NCTR’s ongoing work including some of those positive developments that Elder Cameron has mentioned. The NCTR has a unique mandate and responsibility. We are the stewards of all survivor statements gathered during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as an extraordinary collection of documents and sacred items that continues to grow daily. We are the leading national institution supporting academic research on residential schools, and we are working every day with survivors, nations and grassroots movements across the country to raise awareness of the missing children.
The NCTR currently holds about 4 million records. The NCTR is tasked with making these records available to survivors, their families, communities, researchers and educators. We are also required to balance concerns about privacy and consent, and the work of cataloguing these records and reviewing them for disclosure is monumental and ongoing.
Since 2021, there has been an incredible increase in the volume of requests for records from survivors, and frankly, we have been overwhelmed by the number and pace of requests, leading to the very regrettable delays in processing these requests. I am pleased to relate, however, that the federal government’s 2022 commitment of long-term, sustained core funding has enabled us to significantly expand our capacity. By the end of this month, the NCTR archives will have eliminated the backlog in requests, leading to a much reduced time for survivors and communities to receive copies of their records.
The NCTR has also been undertaking a systematic review of the records in our care to fit all the pieces together — it’s a very, very large puzzle right now — until a more complete story of the children who never did return home can be put together.
In 2019, we worked with survivors and communities to create the National Student Memorial Register to honour all the children. There currently are 4,128 children included on the register, and you can read their names on our website and on the memorial banner that we share yearly. As a result of our detailed review of more than 2 million records to date, the NCTR will soon be announcing a significant number of new names to that register. That work is not finished, and it’s ongoing.
The honourable senators will be aware that the Government of Canada and various religious archives who ran the schools failed to disclose all the records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Recent agreements with the federal government, with the religious orders, including the oblates, are starting to rectify this. It’s been a very long process and we’re going into year 8 since the mandate of the TRC ended.
We know that millions of additional records will be provided to the NCTR and through us to survivors, families and communities. We’re currently working with the federal government, which will release another estimated 10 to 15 million records to the NCTR. You can imagine the truth that is yet to come.
We’re concerned not only with the records created by the schools and the government, but with any documents, evidence that helps shine a light on this complex history. I particularly want to recognize the National Film Board of Canada, which entered into an agreement with NCTR to review their significant archives to identify and catalogue relevant records and share copies with us. This includes working on a digital preservation of all 7,000-plus survivors’ statements gathered during the TRC, so that they are available for decades to come.
The NCTR continues the work of recording statements from residential school survivors, many of whom have never told their oral histories before. We have worked closely with the office of Kimberley Murray, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites, to ensure all survivors have access to this resource at the national events as she completes her work.
As more and more communities take the research into residential schools’ missing children, we are supporting them in developing the tools and protocols they need to secure data for their future use. I would like to highlight the National Advisory Committee on Residential School Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. The committee which was established last year through a partnership through NCTR and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, brings together an extraordinary range of survivors and Indigenous expertise on all issues related to the search of missing children.
The information being shared by this committee helps address a critical need that we heard expressed by Indigenous communities across the country. The NCTR has also recently partnered with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to respond to Call to Action 65, which called for a national research program to advance understanding of reconciliation. The Reconciliation Network will fund, led by Indigenous researchers working with Indigenous communities, and contribute to our collective understanding of truth and reconciliation. These projects may look at the history of residential schools, the legacy of colonial policies in areas including child welfare, education, language, culture, health and justice. The NCTR will act as a hub for these individual projects, bringing them together into a network of researchers working towards reconciliation in Canada. The NCTR will further play a role in amplifying the work of the projects to a broad audience and increasing the impacts of the research.
Public education and engagement is also an area where work has grown very rapidly over the last few years. Our education unit, which is very small, three people, that serves the country, carries out about two to three engagements every week. In 2022, the NCTR held more than 200 education sessions with 125 unique organizations, conferences, education booths, presentations, workshops, lunch and learn dialogues and film screenings. One of our most successful outreach programs called, Imagine a Canada, which is an initiative that invites Canadian youth from Kindergarten to Grade 12 nationally to express their vision of reconciliation through art, essays and multimedia. We also invite proposals from older students for school and community activities which we can fund.
The NCTR has always partnered in activities around Orange Shirt Day. Now with recognition of that day as a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, opportunities have grown exponentially. We refer to it as Truth and Reconciliation Week. Online programming reached over 30,000 educators in French, English and Indigenous languages, representing over 1 million students from coast to coast. We do that on an annual basis. We held a 5,000 in-person student empowerment event where they had access to survivors and we also shared the memorial banner. It was an incredible moment as we carried the cloth that holds just over 4,000 names. As I walked by these young people, many of whom were newcomers in the audience and high school age, the cloth came by they were praying and they had tears. I know that those children’s spirits were speaking from beyond and they are making a change because we’re engaging at a younger age and they can carry those stories forth on behalf of those that did not come home.
The national broadcast in partnership also happens on September 30, in partnership with APTN, CBC, independent broadcasters’ news and social media coverage, and the reach is 12.5 million per year. Canadians have access through news and television as well. This year, the theme of Truth and Reconciliation Week from September 25 to 30 will be themed, “Honouring the Resilience of Survivors.”
The high demand for NCTR’s work is a positive sign. It means that there is change and hope for change in this country. I want to reiterate that we cannot meet this demand without long-term, sustainable funding that has been provided by the Government of Canada. It’s been a long journey, and we didn’t receive that until last year. We also have the continued support of our institutional partner and host, the University of Manitoba.
The NCTR has a permanent mandate to record, preserve and share the truth of the residential school history. The Honourable Murray Sinclair, one of three NCTR elders in residence, has said that reconciliation is the work of generations. We know that the ongoing work is going to take decades to come. The NCTR will be here to do that work. I want to honour all of the NCTR staff, Survivors Circle and Governing Circle that continue to work tirelessly with survivors and for survivors.
I want to conclude by saying that we are also very grateful for Canada’s commitment to support the construction of a permanent home for the NCTR in keeping with our unique mandate and responsibility. We received a sizable contribution from the federal government, but we still have a long way to go. We anticipate another $40 million capital fundraising, which will take place very soon. But we are committed because we know that we are here with survivors, our Elders and knowledge keepers. I want to say meegwetch for your time and for the invitation to come to you today.
Senator Tannas: Thank you for being here today. Ms. Scott, you mentioned that there are still organizations and people with data that has not been turned over to you. We all want to do things to help. Part of helping is listening and talking, but sometimes part of help that we can provide is to actually do something. Here in the Senate, we do have the ability to hold oversight hearings. We can compel people to come and testify before us. What would you think if you gave us the names and the contacts for organizations that aren’t providing data, and we’ll haul them up here in public and we’ll ask them why?
Ms. Scott: I would love for you to do that. We have been waiting a long time, and I think it’s absolutely crucial. When Tk’emlúps happened and the children began to speak from beyond, that’s when the world and the landscape changed for us. We used to have to do a lot of reaching out across the country, developing partnerships, still trying to acquire different records. We have worked closely — I think it’s time — the time is now, the time could be today that you call upon those people, and I would be more than willing to share that information with you. We have done a public media campaign. There are no secrets. Everything has been public and we all know what’s happened, many of us here at this table. If you are willing to do that, I respectfully would ask you to help.
Senator Tannas: I certainly would advocate for that. If you want to send the clerk, for future discussions, the name of let’s say the three most flagrant and obvious resistors, we could start maybe there and talk about it as a group. All senators would have to agree that’s a kind of meeting that we were going to have. To me, there is a time for action. As Senator Arnot mentioned, we’re not going to get anywhere until we get all the data. We won’t get to the full and complete truth, which is what all Canadians should want. It’s the only way we’re going to move forward. Thank you, that’s the only question I had.
Senator Audette: First of all, thank you to the chair for doing things differently today and giving people time to come and share their truth, which is important in this space. I’d also like to thank my colleagues for asking really good questions and making good comments.
I just wanted to thank you on behalf of my mother. We carry her trauma every day. At the same time, I’m proud to see Indigenous men and women with so much power, so that my mother can finally learn the truth and for the 28 families who learned the truth today after their baby was taken from them in Manawan, Quebec. Thanks to your work today, we now have some truth, and we can heal.
So it’s still with us, and I thank you because this is about my friends and my family. We must stay strong in a very colonial space. Thanks to you, thanks to my colleagues, I now know it’s possible to fight from the inside out. You have a friend, an ally and a devoted woman. Thank you so much.
The Chair: Thank you for your kind words, Senator Audette.
Ms. Scott: I don’t know what’s appropriate in this colonial structure, but meegwetch.
Senator Arnot: I will start by saying that the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has such an important role to play in the future of this country. I believe in the power of education, and it sounds to me like you don’t have enough resources to do the kind of education that is required to fight things like deniers in order to give people the truth. I’m wondering what comments you might have about what we can do to support anything you want us to — Senator Tannas has given a very good example — particularly on education, because I think the education of non-Indigenous people in Canada is really critical to moving forward. You are well placed to be able to create curricular resources, be it for K-12 or university levels. I’m wondering what you might say about that and what we can do to help with that or any other issue you think that we should be focused on to support your work.
Ms. Scott: Education is absolutely key. Every year, we come back to the table for project funding. We continue to fight for the dollars. We knock on every door possible to raise an annual budget of just over $1 million in order to do the work that we need to do. When you talk about $1 million to reach 12.5 million Canadians, you have to equate that per person. If you divide that, it’s very minimal. Frankly, it’s difficult. It’s a distraction for us to continue to come back to the table, but we do it because we’re working with the survivors and elders every day and we know that this is the way forward.
Some of the most incredible, hopeful and emotional programming is with the younger generation. When you sit with them and you ask them what they see going forward and how the country can repair itself, they have done phenomenal work. I wish I could bring them to this committee because they write poetry, they write art, they share it with their families. The young children know more than their parents did and more than I did. I was taken at birth from my community and didn’t find my way home until I was 28 years of age. Every day I’m learning. I was 52 when I found out who my father was. My mother had such a difficult time sharing that information. You need to think about the decades of work we need to do, and that’s just one person, one experience and one story.
If you could pressure and call those people to the table again and ask them to help do our work. We have a three-person education unit at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which has been doing phenomenally. We have a young educational lead named Kaila Johnston, and she came to us as a student at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and has continued her work. She has literally grown up with us. I get chills when I speak about her, because I know one day she will take my job, and I totally support that because she has an incredible corporate history. Keeping pressure on the government to help support the NCTR is number one. We’ve been very frugal. We’ve gotten partner after partner, and we won’t stop because we know the importance of the work that has to happen.
The Chair: Thank you for that.
Senator Coyle: Yes, you’ve asked us to stand with you, Ms. Cameron, and that’s definitely my intention. Hopefully, you feel that from the rest of the group around this not-quite-a-circle — let’s pretend it’s a circle. I want to thank both of you for your testimony and the critical work that you’re doing.
I’m really struck by the point that you made about denialism. We’ve heard a little bit about this. This is really serious. You described it as fake news, including people with power. It’s hurtful, it’s damaging and it’s, frankly, really dangerous. I’m very concerned to hear what you’re saying. The Senate of Canada has had our own internal issue of denialism in our ranks, which has passed, but that really struck a very difficult cord with us in our chamber. We’re not immune to it.
You’ve mentioned, and we know and appreciate, how much education, school programs and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation are really powerful for getting the truth out and as antidotes to that denialism. I would like to unpack this with you a little bit more if I could. Could you tell us more about the nature and anything you know about the sources of the denialism and their possible links — because we’re seeing this on a number of things — to broader misinformation and disinformation campaigns and what else you might suggest as actions to counter that?
Ms. Scott: If I may, I’ll just ask Elder Cameron to speak actions from her survivor perspective, and then I’ll tell you a little bit about our engagement at the NCTR and where it comes from.
Ms. Cameron: There’s not too much education in our homeland, in Canada, about who we are, who we were, our structures, our systems and our Anishinaabe philosophy before the arrival of the settlers. That’s the big missing piece with the deniers, they’re not familiar with how it is that we came to be and how it is that we were already here when they arrived. It permeates everything, everywhere. Every day we are challenged by that same question: How do we do this? Well, Ms. Scott has talked about some of that — the education. Come to our communities, come to our lodges, come and visit us where we are, encourage people to be inclusive with us, share with us and don’t be afraid of us. We have much to share and much to teach.
As a child I remembered that we had four foundations and teachings. The first of those four foundations was that we had to have a spirit name. The spirit name gave us purpose. The next one was our clan, because our clan was our spirit that could guide us and would be with us always so we were never alone. The third thing we were given as Anishinaabe was a way of life, how to live a good life here on this earth. And the fourth one was choice. Of course, with all that, there is language.
All of that was taken. By the time I came out of the residential school, I was like a zombie. I didn’t even know who I was or why I was here on this earth. It’s taken a long time to come to the point of understanding who I am, why I’m here and what it is that I need to do here on this earth for work. We’re all here for a purpose on this earth. I did not find that out until after years and years of bewilderment, chaos happening in my life and not understanding why I was here.
To your question, we’re open to anyone who wants to listen, to share, to learn anything about us. Like Stephanie said, there are no secrets. We have no secrets. Meegwetch for the opportunity.
Ms. Scott: For us at the NCTR, there is not a day that I don’t get an email from a denier. Some days I open up my email, and that’s the first thing I see. As Ms. Murray, who was former Executive Director of the TRC, also noted, we have access to the records, everything that is there in black and white. You hear and you see handwritten letters from parents, mothers, fathers asking about where their children are. How could you have buried my child without telling me where they ended up? You see administrators and church back and forth letters between them, saying that it’s too expensive to put their child’s body on a train in order to send them home to give them proper burial and dignity. That is all there in black and white and very detailed.
I think once you open up those records, make them available through education and get the records into the hands of the community so that people can share that information, then that power remains with our people, so that they can piece together those facts. Paired with the survivor narratives that we hold, Barbara Cameron, Kimberly Murray, and I, as well as members at the table have been across this country speaking with survivors in every corner coast to coast to coast. No matter where we went, we heard stories of death and of children who have gone missing. The NCTR continues to research that, as we had mentioned earlier.
We’ve reviewed all those records, and I think it’s fact-based, and deniers have to really stop.
You see websites that are being created. You know the origins of these people. People become very focused. We are working closely with the national advisory committee which has brought up the possibility of legislation and to help support that and the creation of that so that there is a law created to deal with that.
It’s problematic and difficult. I was witness to many people across this land, and I can tell you paired with those documents, which need to be publicly accessible, that is key and crucial. We’re working to do that. Everything is not perfect right now. We know and understand that, but through the minds of people like Honourable Murray Sinclair and Kimberley Murray, who we work with closely at OSI, we’re going to take actions so we can get that information into Canadians’ hands as well.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I want to dig into the denialism. Perhaps the most violent that I’ve seen is academic denialism. For my colleagues, to give you some context, the three commissioners of the TRC came to Edmonton about seven or eight years ago and did a fantastic presentation to a packed auditorium, and a University of Alberta professor stood up in the Q&A and said, “Why should I teach the TRC final report if it’s not peer reviewed?” Have you come across this problem in academia around this rigid, positivistic gaze that some academics hold? If you have come across it, have you had any success in countering it?
Ms. Scott: At the centre itself, there are articles and websites from academics who have published inaccurate facts. The focus, I can tell you right now, has been on the survival of the NCTR. The denialism is a priority, but it comes second to getting the records to the centre, working with survivors and committees. That doesn’t mean that we’re leaving it unaddressed. We’ve just last week written an op-ed that they’re currently pitching in regard to denialism and what those impacts are, how we should address them and what Canadians need to know and understand. Again, we are a small team serving a country, but we are actively doing what we can to combat that.
We work very closely with survivors, and every opportunity they join us. I think that the importance of honouring and respecting the survivors and, again, the records and ensuring that we have everything that we can and need at our disposal is important. That’s the only way that I see we’re going to be able to sincerely take action so that the mass majority of people understand, know and are educated as to what really happened in this country.
When the children were found, it wasn’t only Canadians who were interested in what happened in residential schools, but also the world. We did hundreds of interviews right around the globe, and we continue to get asked for updates as to what is happening in this country, and that’s what we need to continue to do to engage not only here on this soil, but around the world.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: If there is anything we can do to help with that, especially from the academic perspective, because that gets in the way of properly training our teachers, even in the way that scientists might see burial grounds, if this committee can do something, we would be very interested as well.
Ms. Cameron: I just wanted to add that each time a denier says something, it takes us right back to when I would play in amongst the graves. I would casually tell teachers or other adults, but we weren’t believed.
Also, when I was taking the statements, many people spoke of graves, but they weren’t believed.
Each time that we’re not believed is a form of the continued lateral violence against us. It further induces and triggers us into that trauma. We’re still not believed. What do you have to do to be believed? We have the proof. Meegwetch.
The Chair: Thank you for that. It is certainly up to us as parliamentarians to confront denialism whenever we see it, because it has no place in our society. I want to mention that.
Senator Greenwood: Hiy hiy, Elder Cameron, for your opening us this day, this session in a good way.
I also want to recognize the work, Ms. Scott, that you and your team do on behalf of all of us. Hiy hiy.
I’m interested in your statement about education as the way forward and the number of examples that you’ve given us today, the work that you do and the magnitude of that work when we’re talking about 12 million people on $1 million. It’s just unbelievable that you can even hardly get anything done. I think that’s a real crime, and I would certainly be supportive of seeing that budget increase.
As you speak about denialism, I want to say something here and then I’m going to talk about an education question. As we’ve been speaking about that, I cannot help but think of the overarching colonial experience or the colonial realities that we live in, underlied by concepts of power, land, resources and colonization of our own minds. I cannot help but think of those large concepts when we’re trying to think about education and the changing of that. I absolutely believe that will change with the generations coming behind us and that we educate all of our children about these lived realities of the First Peoples of this land.
I’m really thinking about that, and I’m thinking about newcomers who come to Canada. We hear about it all the time. I’m wondering how we can provide education for them, as they come to these shores, about this lived reality, because I’m not convinced that people coming here are aware of these realities.
We often talk about people who have lived here all their lives, but there are people coming all the time. How can we educate them better so that they don’t get caught up in the colonial experience? We want them to know what they’re coming to.
Would you have any thoughts on that, Ms. Scott?
Ms. Cameron: Let me speak to this. Thank you for that.
Approximately seven or eight years ago, I worked in a job where my focus was to train people in a regional health authority, a major organization. I never knew who I was going to get in my learning circle, whether it would be a doctor, a surgeon, a dietary person, or a housekeeper.
On one particular occasion, I had a young lady challenger, and I was really happy for her questions. She questioned why Indigenous people, why Anishinaabe people, complain. As an immigrant, she was very happy to be here. I said, “Yes, I understand what you’re saying, but if you sit where I’m sitting, where do you go? Where do you go to practise your culture, speak your language, do your ceremonies? You go to your own homeland. There you have it. You can return anytime and be home and do all of those things that you grew up with. We here, Canada is our homeland. This is where we were placed. Unfortunately, our language, our culture, our beliefs, all of that has been taken from us, and it’s very difficult just surviving day to day. There is nowhere to run. Where do we go to find that?” At once, she understood.
It’s that simple but that profound at the same time. Meegwetch.
Ms. Scott: As a personal reflection and where I’ve come from and what I’ve lived in, when I went back home to my community, I was welcomed home with a sweat and a water drum ceremony, and invited to sit with our elders, people from my family that I didn’t know. Can you imagine the possibility or understanding that could be provided if part of the process when you are taking in newcomers be that they work with the traditional peoples of the territory through a ceremony? It’s not paper or swearing an oath.
That understanding and clarity have been instrumental in me making a change in my life. I think if we are going to live together in harmony, that is one step forward. It’s not that everyone will migrate to that, but it’s just the experience and the understanding.
I’ve seen remarkable change with people, even people who are on the fence about what the truth is of this country, change or that physical empowerment and understanding of who we really are in this country.
There are many people across this land — and we met many along the way during the TRC — that led and guided us, and I think I’m better for it. Perhaps even thinking of that way forward could be good.
The Chair: This completes the time for this panel. Again, I wish to thank our witnesses, Ms. Scott and Elder Cameron, for joining us today and providing some very powerful testimony. Thank you very much.
(The committee adjourned.)