Returning Home: Repatriation and Missing Children

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Last week the remote Northern Ontario community of Peawanuck First Nation welcomed home Charlie Hunter.  Charlie passed away in 1974 while attending St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany.  He died while saving a fellow student who had fallen through ice near the school.  Following his death Charlie Hunter was buried in Moosoonee without the consent of his family.

The Hunter family has struggled for years to bring Charlie home. Earlier this year the Hunter family, the National Residential Schools Society, Keewaytinook Okimakanak, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Toronto Star began a campaign to raise money to bring Charlie to Peawanuck.

Two weeks after a story about Charlie appeared in the Toronto Star enough funds were raised to repatriate Charlie’s body.  These articles which contributed to funds being gathered for return can be seen here and here.  The efforts of the bring Charlie home campaign came to fruition on Friday August 19th, 2011 when over 100 mourners gathered in Peawanuck to see Charlie laid to rest in his home community. News coverage documenting Charlie’s return home can be seen here and here.

The repatriation of Charlie is a unique story, but the details leading up to Charlie returning home are surprisingly common place. Many children who passed away at residential school were buried at the school they were attending.  Additionally, a countless number of children disappeared while at residential school. Missing and incomplete records make it difficult to estimate how many children died or disappeared during their time at residential school.  Similarly, mass and unmarked graves which are found at a number of residential school cemeteries make it impossible to identify the remains of students buried while at school.

The repatriation of Charlie highlights the ongoing struggle of all Canadians – First Nation, Métis, Inuit, and non-indigenous people – to deal with the legacy of the Canadian residential school system.  Charlie is one of the very few residential schools students who have been returned home.

So far, the Canadian government and organizations which ran the residential schools have put little effort into assisting families in their efforts to locate burial sites, missing children, and unmarked graves.  The government sanctioned Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) supports the Missing Children and Unmarked Grave Working Group’s Recommendations and has a file on missing children. However, the TRC has stated that given their limited mandate and the overwhelming number of missing children the TRC is not going to be able to say how many children died in the schools, or where they are all buried.  It is probable that we may never know the names or numbers of all those lost as a result of the residential school system.

The efforts of the Hunter family to bring Charlie home were covered by CBC, CTV, and various print media outlets.  The return of Charlie Hunter to Peawanuck has the potential to raise awareness of the impact of residential schools and inspire reconciliation and respectful repatriation.  But, only time will tell if that potential will be effectively harnessed or ignored by the Canadian public and government.

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