Considering the Legal and Human Rights Framework for Addressing Mass Graves Connected to Indian Residential Schools By The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre

On May 28, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of a mass grave with 215 unmarked burials at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Only one month later, the Cowessess First Nation announced they had discovered 751 unmarked burials on the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Both of these discoveries refute currently accessible official records, in which minimal deaths were recorded for the schools – 50 at Kamloops and 8 at Marieval. We have been reminded of the importance of Survivor testimony, as Elders, Knowledge Keepers and Survivors have provided information on mass graves and unmarked burials at sites across Canada. This news is distressing but unfortunately not shocking: these discoveries are similar to findings emerging from communities across Canada and stories of student deaths have been shared and well documented by Survivors.

For decades truth-telling and proper investigation of missing children in relation to residential schools has been largely ignored or left to Survivors and communities to advance. This is an enormous burden. Indigenous Peoples must be respected in their territories and Indigenous governments must have the space to shape how this work will now unfold.

The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia will support Survivors and Indigenous communities as the work of investigation, redress, restorative justice, and healing unfolds. It is in this spirit that this paper is being released. The paper proposes some of the legal and policy issues that governments must address, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, if a proper and serious framework for addressing unmarked burials and mass graves in Canada is to be established. Canadian law has no established understanding or standards of how to approach the discovery of mass graves or other unmarked burials. This discussion paper explores some of the considerations for a legal and human rights framework for mass graves by examining international approaches and applying them to the Canadian context.

We know this is a time of incredible suffering, pain and loss. For Survivors, families, and communities we must deploy all of our resources and expertise, such as that available at the University of British Columbia, to inform and support the efforts they will lead.

The Centre stands in support of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, the Cowessess First Nation, and shares in the collective grief being felt across the country. We recognize that this work of recovering and identifying remains of children who were at residential schools is difficult, but it will not be pushed aside.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society offers emotional, mental and cultural support for residential school Survivors and their families. A National Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students. This 24-Hour Crisis Line can be accessed at: 1-866-925-4419.

Read the full report here: