When Dr. Rebekah Jacques was 13 years old, she already knew she wanted to be a forensic pathologist. Around the same time, she visited the former site of two joint residential schools in Spanish, Ont., just 30 minutes down the road from her home in Blind River. As she walked the grounds where the boys’ school once stood and the hollowed shell of the girls’ building remained, she recalls thinking, “I could do good work here as a forensic pathologist.”
That experience came “full circle” for Jacques last week, when she attended her first meeting as an appointee to the new National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.
The committee, recently announced by Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, will provide Indigenous communities access to independent and expert information in their efforts to identify, locate and commemorate their missing children.
Jacques, a Métis forensic pathologist and professor in pathology and laboratory medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, is one of 10 committee members offering expertise in: Indigenous laws and cultural protocols, forensics, archeology, archival research, criminal investigations, communication, and working with survivors. A circle of survivors guides the committee, and is comprised of two First Nations, two Inuit, and two Métis Nation survivors.
“It’s really an honour and humbling to do this work with the circle of survivors, elders and other experts,” Jacques said. “I recognize the weight that is associated with it, and I don’t take it lightly.”
Thousands of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children never returned home from the residential schools operated across Canada from the 1870s to 1990s. Many were buried in gravesites that are unrecorded, unmarked and unprotected.
As Indigenous communities undertake the difficult and essential work to locate and commemorate burial sites at former residential schools, the advisory committee will ensure Indigenous-led and culturally sensitive technical advice is available to support their work.
Before the children can return home, Jacques said there are important steps to consider in advance.
“If communities choose to bring home children, it could involve a variety of different methods,” she said. “Right now, a lot of the work is done by ground-penetrating radar to see changes in the earth and detect potential burials. But we would have to exhume to determine if there were human remains. And then we would conduct post-mortem examinations to identify these children to their linear descendant communities.”
Jacques’ contributions will involve creating a tool kit of general guidelines and considerations as different Indigenous communities investigate burial sites.
“Many residential schools had cemeteries for children that died at the residential school, which could include children from multiple different Indigenous communities,” Jacques said. And those communities may hold varying perspectives and cultural traditions around exhumation and disturbing the land, forensic identification, and post-mortem examinations.
“That’s why an important part of the committee’s mandate is to organize engagement sessions with Indigenous communities to help them identify their needs and let them ask us questions,” she said. “What might be important to one community may not be important to another. Some communities want a forensic analysis, some communities don’t. That will change how we approach exhumations if that is what’s wanted.”
In addition to her forensic training, Jacques will also be drawing on her research interest in death investigation bioethics research, a new sub-discipline in bioethics, as the committee tackles both practical and moral questions.
“If we are going to bring home the children who died, we are going to need to know who these children are to repatriate them to their communities and families,” Jacques said. “This involves an enormous amount of work, scientifically, but there’s a lot of emotional labour associated with that. There are also ethical issues. If we are unable to identify the child in a case where the family descendants have died, what do we do with the potentially unidentified human remains?”
There are a lot of value-laden choices that need to be made. In some ways, the science, and managing this from a forensic point of view, is the easy part. But the emotional and ethical part associated with it is not.” ~ Dr. Rebekah Jacques
What’s most important to Jacques is providing a much-needed resource to support families and communities in making decisions that are right for them.
“This is one step toward reconciliation,” Jacques said. “These children did not undergo their own cultural burials. Mostly, they were likely Christian burials, but we don’t know for certain.
“The paradigm of death in Indigenous culture is different throughout Indigenous communities, but if you haven’t fulfilled the cultural part, it’s hard to grieve. It may be really important for certain families and certain communities to bury their loved ones in a way that is in keeping with their cultural values and, from a promise-keeping perspective, every culture has duties to the people who have died.”
”My job is to provide options and show what each might mean for their communities.”