The provincial government will provide $475,000 to each of B.C.’s 18 Indian residential school sites and three hospitals for work to investigate and exhume graves at those schools, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin said July 20.
“I grieve with the families and communities as we grapple with recent findings and the findings yet to come," Rankin said.
"We know it's going to take time, technical resources and emotional and cultural supports to provide what nations require to navigate this difficult time, and these funds and liaisons are designed to support them in whatever way they need."
Rankin agreed B.C.’s funding certainly isn’t enough for all the work. He said it’s intended to start that work and fill in gaps in funding from Ottawa.
He said the funds are for community-led strategies to identify, investigate, document, maintain, protect and/or commemorate sites where remains may be located. He said the funding would be done in collaboration with Ottawa and community leaders to ensure communities have the needed resources.
A further $2 million is available to ensure Indigenous service providers and survivor support networks have resources to respond to immediate wellness, cultural and mental health needs of Indigenous people in B.C.
The details came with the announcement of the appointment of Charlene Belleau, former Esk'etemc First Nation chief and past chair of the First Nations Health Council, and Lydia Hwitsum, former chief of the Cowichan Tribes and past chair of the First Nations Health Authority, as First Nations liaisons for the work.
Their work is to assist communities considered caretakers of the residential school sites to make connections with provincial and federal agencies, provide advice to the provincial government on activities related to former residential school and hospital sites and serve as a communications link between communities and the B.C. government.
"We stand with former students, survivors, intergenerational survivors and their families," Belleau said. "We are ready to support communities as they do the difficult work of honouring the spirits of the children who never came home.”
"This is an important step for B.C. to help support First Nations as we proceed with this important and heartfelt work," Hwitsum said.
Rankin and Premier John Horgan July 15 announced a total of $12 million in funding for the research at former residential school sites and as well as for the mental health and cultural supports.
The announcement came after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépec First Nation at Kamloops said July 15 about 160 acres on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School still need to be searched.
On May 27, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir announced 215 graves had been located on the grounds of the school. She said the discovery was made with the use of GPR.
Earlier this month, the Penelakut Tribe said about 160 undocumented and unmarked graves have been found at the site of the Kuper Island residential school, representatives of said in a statement.
And, the ʔaq̓am indigenous group of the Ktunaxa First Nation announced in late June the finding of 182 graves near Cranbrook.
Other indigenous groups such as William Lake First Nation are also doing ground-penetrating radar work.
Rankin said funding requests would be fast-tracked. No deadline is attached to the grants, and the province has pledged to partner with communities at each step in their process to ensure funding is flexible, responsive and easy to access.
Indigenous leaders have already said the $12 million will be insufficient for the work that needs to be done. It can also include drone lidar (light detection and ranging) and that is before exhumation of bodies, taking of DNA from the dead and surviving relatives and research into families of those possibly buried at sites.
While many point fingers for blame at the Vatican, it wasn’t just the Catholic church that operated schools across the country. The Canadian government operated some schools in partnership with the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, among others. Some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Métis children aged four to 16 were forced into the institutions aimed at assimilating them while suppressing their language and culture.
For immediate assistance to those who may need it, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.