On finding meaningful justice
One part of justice is legislation; we have no laws to protect these [burial] grounds. We have no laws to support communities in accessing grounds that are potentially privately owned now. Broader than that, what does justice mean for survivors and communities that have missing children and unmarked burials in their territories? Nobody’s been charged with murder. Nobody’s been criminally charged with negligence for not taking care of these children. And so survivors and communities are asking how we can hold Canada to account, how we can hold the churches to account. Investigating genocide is very different than investigating a criminal code crime. We do not have the expertise right now to investigate genocide in this country.
On the justice system’s failings
Police services don’t have the expertise to do these investigations. And, meaning no disrespect to the officers on the ground, there’s a question of trust. The RCMP apprehended the children and took them to the institutions. They were hired to return the kids when they ran away from these places. And they conducted failed investigations when parents came forward saying bad things were happening at the schools. And it wasn’t just the RCMP, it was the Ontario Provincial Police, the Quebec provincial police, the former British Columbia provincial police, the municipal police services. There’s report after report that says our criminal justice system has failed Indigenous people. And so my mandate also directs me to look at Indigenous law and how we can incorporate Indigenous law into finding solutions.
On public denial
There’s still denial among many Canadians [about how these children died], as if we all were dying of disease in those times. This is different. The rate of death was exceedingly higher for Indigenous children in residential schools than anywhere else in the country. We forced these children to be in these institutions, and then we underfunded them, creating scenarios where disease was prevalent, which caused them to die. We didn’t take them to get proper medical care. When we did send them to hospitals, we sent them to underfunded Indian hospitals. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathered testimony from survivors who speak about seeing murders. They speak about people being beaten to death. And when you hear the stories from 7,000 survivors, that’s a very important question for communities: How did these children die?
On her own ties to residential schools
I’m Mohawk and a member of the Kanesatake, the Mohawk community on Lake of Two Mountains outside of Montreal, which is unfortunately mostly known as Oka, and my grandfather was actually taken by the Jesuits. He wasn’t taken to an Indian residential school, he was taken to an orphanage, and had a very similar experience in that regard with abuse. My partner, who’s now deceased, his father is a residential school survivor from Shingwauk Indian Residential School [in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.], and speaks of his experience running away. It’s actually quite a story, but it’s his story to share.
I can remember my first time seeing a church official. I was hired as executive director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the officials walked into the room wearing the black robes all the way down to the ground, with the big cross in front. And I just had this feeling of shock, fear, a kind of sickness in my stomach. It was coming from what I knew about what happened to my grandfather. But over the five years of working with the TRC, I learned to get beyond the robe and actually have the conversations with the individuals wearing them. But it took me aback. And I can only imagine how survivors feel when they see when they see that.