Ontario's four main party leaders are reaffirming commitments to search for burial sites at the province's former residential schools for Indigenous students one year after ground-penetrating radar unearthed what are believed to be the graves of 215 children at a former such facility in British Columbia.
The Progressive Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals and Greens have all made pledges on the issue. Doug Ford's Tory government, for instance, promised last November to double a $10-million investment it had earmarked for burial site investigations a few months earlier.
Commitments for funding and support can also be found in the platforms of the other parties vying for victory in the June 2 election.
Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors, however, say financial remedies won't be enough to address the traumas exposed by the discoveries in B.C. and at other residential school sites across the country.
“Money doesn’t fix these things,” said Dawn Iehstoseranón:nha, also known as Dawn Setford, president and founder of the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada.
“Money is not going to make those babies come out of the ground. But what we maybe can do: if we get some love, if we get some support, if we get some tools, we can maybe grow from there.”
A Progressive Conservative spokesperson issued a statement saying the discoveries of the unmarked grave sites at former residential schools “has been deeply traumatic for many Indigenous peoples.”
“The painful legacy of residential schools has resulted in ongoing, intergenerational trauma and we are working together to ensure funding is available for culturally appropriate, trauma-informed supports as this work is undertaken,” the spokesperson wrote.
The party wouldn’t commit to increasing funding for the search, instead reaffirming its $20-million commitment and an additional $12.8 million allocated for "culturally appropriate mental health" services.
Iehstoseranón:nha said the process of searching for residential school burial sites has to be about “support, equality” and “inclusivity.”
“When we start to feel loved, we will start to heal,” she said. “And that is not even on the radar: it’s always money, it’s always promises. That’s not what Indigenous people are.”
Iehstoseranón:nha, who hails from the St. Regis/Akwesasne territory and who was adopted out as a baby to a non-Indigenous family, said it’s time to “stop throwing money” around and time to “do something.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said at a recent campaign stop in Mississauga, Ont., that “we all have an obligation” to “do everything that needs to be done to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people.”
“It’s something that we need to continue to shine a light on,” said Del Duca, highlighting the Liberal party’s costed platform, which commits to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to Action. They include allocating resources to help investigate missing Indigenous children and possible burial sites.
“It’s so important to have a government at Queen’s Park, and a premier at Queen’s Park, who doesn’t simply believe in dictating from on high about this, but actually works with Indigenous people, and actually has these searches be led in partnership with Indigenous people in this province,” said Del Duca.
“So we will fund it appropriately, but we will work closely with Indigenous people so we’re not dictating and suggesting we know how to do it better."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also affirmed her commitment to working with Indigenous communities “on solving the crises that continue to unfold, both on their territories as well as in urban communities.”
The party's platform contains commitments to support and work with First Nations to identify burial sites of children at residential schools, as well as commission "a monument” by an Indigenous artist for display at Queen’s Park “that recognizes the victims of the Indian residential school system.” Such a monument, if erected, would fulfill one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.
“The trauma that has been experienced by First Nations communities in the context of the horrific discoveries of the various … graves of children that never made their way home from … residential schools is significant,” said Horwath.
She said it’s important to respect First Nations leadership and include their perspectives in any plans concerning their communities.
“The counseling and the kind of supports that need to happen during (the search for burial sites)] — because it does bring a lot of trauma with it — all of those things need to be led by First Nations voices and First Nations peoples.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2022.
Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press