VANCOUVER — The B.C. government says it will provide immediate funding to 21 First Nation communities to help with searches for human remains at former residential schools or hospitals.
Murray Rankin, the minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, said on Tuesday that each community can receive up to $475,000 as it carries out searches, planning, technical work and archival research, while also engaging with elders, survivors and other First Nations that have an interest in an area.
No deadline is attached to the grants, he said and the funding is from the $12 million the province announced last month for research at former residential school sites, as well as for mental health and cultural supports for Indigenous communities.
The government also announced the appointment of Charlene Belleau and Lydia Hwitsum as First Nations liaisons to help the communities as the search for remains continues.
Belleau, 68, said she would like to find the remains of her great-grandfather who took his own life while at St. Joseph's Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C.
The former Chief of Esk'etemc First Nation said finding the remains of Augustine Allen will bring closure for her.
"They buried him there without telling our family," she told a news conference.
"This was during a period of time when flogging was at its worst. They strung our children on poles and lashed them until they passed out."
The Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced in May that ground-penetrating radar had identified what are believed to be the remains of more than 200 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Several other First Nations have announced similar findings since then.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified up to 6,000 missing children, but anticipated the actual number was greater.
Belleau said another eight-year-old, Duncan Sticks, ran away from St. Joseph's and froze to death. An inquest was held into his death with no results and no change for the residential school for years, she said.
These stories come from her own experience and from research she undertook to understand what Indigenous communities faced, she said.
Belleau found out about her great-grandfather, who died in the summer of 1920 by eating poisonous water hemlock, through a report she oversaw years later, she said. That's when she asked her mother about it.
"She just said 'Yes, that happened,' but didn't really want to talk about it," Belleau said in an interview.
"So, you know, and I think we have to respect that our elders or our parents maybe strong Catholics, and I don't want to insult or hurt her either. So, I just took it that she never said anything, but it was there in black and white for me to see."
Belleau was number 169 when she attended St. Joseph's.
"We've waited for this time for a long time. Through all of those inquiries we told governments, we told churches, our children never came home," Belleau said during the news conference.
"They never believed us. Now we know. Now you know. We have a responsibility to work together to bring our loved one's home."
The liaisons will be there for all nations as they investigate the residential schools in their communities and proceed with healing, she said.
Their Indigenous ancestors had prepared the communities for the "dark times," such as residential schools, the so-called Sixties Scoop and sexual abuse through song and ceremonies, she noted.
It's "great" that what was meant to be destroyed in residential schools such as the language and culture of First Nation communities is now their biggest support, she said.
"Our traditions will now be our greatest strength," Belleau said.
"I encourage our leaders and our families to continue our ceremonies, continue our songs, our sacred fires when it's safe to do so, so that we can continue to honour those children that never came home, and that we will wait to bring home."
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.
Hina Alam, The Canadian Press