Rebecca Benson | CUPE Staff
In June 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the hurt and trauma felt by Indigenous communities was “Canada’s responsibility to bear” and pledged that, “while we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory”.
Since the initial announcement of the uncovering of 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops Residential School in May 2021 (later revised to 200 graves), more than 1,800 confirmed or suspected unmarked graves have been identified at residential school sites across Canada.
It is important to note that Indigenous communities have always spoken of children that never came home from residential schools, and have always known of the presence of unmarked graves on residential school sites. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission included information about known and suspected unmarked graves in its final reports released in 2015.
However, as of April 2022, only 15 of the 139 residential school sites have been searched, with 124 school sites yet to be investigated.
Unfortunately, this year’s federal budget does not provide effective financial commitments to follow through on the Prime Minister’s promise. And one of the budget’s prominent weaknesses is the lack of support directed toward Indigenous communities to search residential school sites to recover unmarked graves.
In the lead up to the 2022 federal budget, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) provided a detailed preliminary set of recommendations. Notably, they identified a need for $1.2 billion over two years for the investigation and commemoration of unmarked gravesites by Indigenous communities.
The federal government responded by providing only $209.8 million over five years for a list of various activities, including a new building for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the complete disclosure of federal documents related to residential schools. While the recovery and commemoration of unmarked graves is included in this amount, it remains unclear what portion of this meager budget will be provided directly to Indigenous communities and allotted to the search of residential school grounds.
The federal budget also spares $65 million for other activities and projects related to the commemoration of residential schools, but none is provided directly to Indigenous communities. Instead, this funding is reserved for government ministries and departments, and the RCMP who will oversee decisions regarding the resources shared with Indigenous communities. This includes:
- $5.1 million over five years to the RCMP “supporting community-led responses to unmarked graves”.
- $10.4 million for “a Special Interlocutor who will work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples and make recommendations for changes to strengthen federal laws and practices to protect and preserve unmarked burial sites”.
- $25 million over three years to digitize documents related to the federal Indian Day School System.
- $25 million over three years to Parks Canada to support the commemoration and memorialization of former residential school sites.
Yet again, government ministries and departments will decide to what extent Indigenous communities have access to this funding.
Not only is this budget a sliver of what is really required, by providing little funding directly to Indigenous communities engaging in residential school site searches. It also ignores the full spectrum of resources that Indigenous peoples need and have desperately lacked for decades.
And while the 2022 budget aspired at “making housing more affordable”, the AFN noted that the commitments to Indigenous housing fall well short of what is required. Facing a need of $44 billion over ten years, according to the AFN, the federal government has chosen to advance only $3 billion over five years.
Community reactions were mixed. On the one hand, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) praised the federal budget for its allocation of funds toward Inuit housing, listed as $845 million over seven years. But on the other, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, representing off-reserve status and non-status Indians, Métis and Southern Inuit Indigenous peoples, criticized the budget as lacking support for the over 80% of Indigenous people who live off-reserve.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has likewise raised red flags, because the 2022 budget provides no funding for the implementation of the 231 calls for justice that were outlined in the National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People.
For many years, Indigenous activists, politicians, and communities as a whole have been asking for Indigenous peoples to have a meaningful say in how funding allotted to Indigenous issues and communities is spent. Standing up with them, CUPE is committed to reconciliation and justice for Indigenous peoples.
In fact, at our union’s National Convention in November 2021, members reaffirmed their commitment to truth and reconciliation through the adoption of Resolution 66. They also responded to the devastating uncovering of unmarked graves, as well as the need for additional resources toward searches of residential school grounds across the country.
CUPE delegates also adopted Resolution 60, which states that we will, with other like-minded labour organizations and institutions, demand a search and investigation of all residential school grounds, funded by the federal government and led by Indigenous people.
We continue to call on all governments in Canada to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and to provide resources to remedy all the issues experienced by Indigenous peoples on a daily basis.
Canada has a proven history of underfunding services and infrastructure for Indigenous communities. This chronic neglect has created injustice and crisis. Despite the 2022 federal budget’s inadequacy to honour the need for Indigenous-led responses, and to provide what is required to find and appropriately memorialize thousands of unmarked graves across the country, CUPE will continue to advocate for fair and equitable funding and to hold the Canadian government to account for truth and reconciliation.