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Indigenous children hold letters that spell “goodbye” at Fort Simpson Indian Residential School in this undated photo. (J.F. Moran/Library and Archives Canada) TORONTO — Armed with everything from school attendance records to drones, researchers across Canada are racing to shed light on a bleak part of the country’s history: How many indigenous children died at residential schools, and where are their unmarked graves?

From 1883 to 1998, nearly 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and sent to the government-funded, church-run boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them. Once there, they were frequently neglected and abused. What happened at the schools was akin to “ cultural genocide ,” concluded a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It also found that at least 3,200 students died at residential schools over those 115 years — a much higher death rate than for students elsewhere in Canada — though the commission contended that the number was probably much higher and merited further investigation.

In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. Six of them deal specifically with creating a register of the missing children and mapping their graves.

But nearly three years later, some say that a lack of resources and missing documents is inhibiting progress, increasing the likelihood that the relatives of missing residential-school children will die without knowing the fate of their loved ones and that unmarked graves could be destroyed. Cree students pose at their desks with their teacher in a classroom at All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac la Ronge, Saskatchewan, in March 1945. (Bud Glunz/National Film Board of Canada) “There are scant resources being provided to do this work,” said Ry Moran, the director of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, which is working on some of these calls to action. “We know some of those cemetery locations now sit under parking lots.”

A spokesman for the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said in a statement that the government provided the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation with $500,000 in March and that it is “working closely” with it “in making progress toward the completion of these, and other associated Calls to Action.”

Moran said that he expects to have an initial register of dead schoolchildren ready by March 2019 but cautioned that it won’t be a complete list because there are “literally millions more documents to review.”

Putting together the puzzle pieces found in those documents is “seldom straightforward,” said Nancy Hurn, a former archivist at the Anglican Church of Canada who pores over church records to find the names of dead children in her retirement but is not affiliated with the commission or the center. She has so far uncovered the names of 119 dead children.

“I’ve been an archivist for 40 years, and this is the most important work I’ve done,” Hurn said. “There is a lot to account for.” Children’s sleeping quarters in the basement of Ermineskin Indian Residential School in what was then known as Hobbema, Alberta, in June 1938. (Canadian Department of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada) School records were often destroyed or inconsistently kept, according to the commission’s 2015 report. Officials also frequently failed to record the name and gender of students who died or the cause of death. Authorities even neglected to report the deaths to the parents.

Complicating matters further, Moran said, some of the Catholic entities responsible for running the schools have not yet turned over their documents.

The religious organizations that operated the schools — the Anglican Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada, United […]

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