Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme recently said he was treating 751 unmarked graves on the site of a former Saskatchewan residential school as a "crime scene." Chief Delorme is right in his characterization; as more and more unmarked graves are identified, there seems little doubt that crimes were committed.
But does that mean any of the people responsible for the deaths of these children will be brought to justice? That is very hard to say right now, although some political leaders are raising the prospect of criminal charges.
Minister of Northern Affairs and Winnipeg MP Dan Vandal made national headlines when he declared that all those responsible for crimes against residential school children "need to be charged." Even though this was the strongest statement yet from the federal Liberal government on the issue of unmarked graves, there are concerns about the legitimacy of Mr. Vandal’s pledge.
First, Mr. Vandal did not commit to referring the matter to police for the launch of an actual criminal investigation. And second, he seemed unaware of the complexity of the challenge such a probe would entail.
Mr. Vandal was not aware, by his own admission, that Ottawa had already paid private investigators to identify more than 5,300 alleged perpetrators named by residential school survivors. More than 700 of those would actually go on to provide statements to the Independent Assessment Process, which accompanied the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to determine compensation for residential school survivors.
Mr. Vandal also could not have known all that evidence is tied up in an awkward legal context. The statements from perpetrators were primarily used to verify claims of abuse to determine compensation. It is unclear whether these interviews can be used now as part of a criminal investigation.
Going forward, Mr. Vandal can put substance behind his bold assertion by answering some simple questions about the prospect of bringing to justice the people responsible for the abuse and death in residential schools.
First and foremost, Mr. Vandal should clarify whether any of the statements collected for the compensation process can be used in a criminal proceeding. If not, could police pursue charges against the more than 4,500 perpetrators who did not co-operate with the compensation assessment process?
Mr. Vandal can take comfort in one undeniable truth: crimes did occur. The findings of the TRC and the recent discoveries of unmarked graves is unambiguous. Children were abused, neglected and, when so many of them died, they were buried in unmarked graves, often with no records of their passing or notification to families.
Unmarked graves are potent evidence that the people who ran these schools did not consider the Indigenous children worthy of the same level of care and basic human dignity as non–Indigenous children.
Unmarked graves are potent evidence that the people who ran these schools did not consider the Indigenous children worthy of the same level of care and basic human dignity as non-Indigenous children. Apart from specific instances of violence or abuse, this kind of dehumanizing neglect is a crime in and of itself.
All that having been said, it is premature to talk about charging people when there has been no criminal investigation. However, there are things that Mr. Vandal can do. Retired senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, has called upon Ottawa to provide the resources for a full criminal investigation. That is an excellent place to start.
Finding and charging those responsible for the death and abuse of residential school children will be a long and arduous mission. But it is worthy of the federal government’s attention and resources. Mr. Vandal should move quickly to put some actions behind his words.