Residential schools: Ottawa contacts international commission for identification

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The Canadian government has approached an international commission that helped identify the remains of those killed in 9/11 and the Lac-Mégantic train disaster to possibly help uncover unmarked graves in former residential schools.

A spokesperson for the International Commission for Missing Persons confirmed Monday that the federal government has contacted it for assistance. He, however, said he had no further information to provide and did not say when the exchange took place.

Based in The Hague, the organization works in different countries to help identify people missing or killed in major conflicts and disasters using DNA testing. It also helps governments and institutions develop policies related to these issues.

In the past year, First Nations across Western Canada have announced the presence of what are believed to be the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died while being forced to attend residential schools.

At least nine communities reported discovering 1,685 such graves, according to government statistics provided in May.

Ottawa has pledged to provide money and resources to First Nations to investigate the finds.

The federal government has also appointed Kimberly Murray, a member of the Mohawk Nation of Kanesatake and former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to serve as an independent special interlocutor.

Ms. Murray was commissioned to recommend policy changes and identify options to protect and preserve the sites.

First Nations involvement

In an interview, she said that while the commission is doing valuable work, the fact that the federal government has had preliminary discussions with it has raised some concerns, as it is unclear whether the request for participation is coming from the indigenous communities themselves. themselves, who she believes should lead the process.

“We are talking about Aboriginal children in these graves,” she said. We are talking about aboriginal communities. We have constitutional sovereignty rights under section 5. It’s a bit of a different approach that needs to happen with these investigations.”

Ms. Murray added that when planning a recent conference in Edmonton, the federal government asked if her office would like to speak with the commission.

In a statement released late Monday, the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said « there is currently no contract in place » between the department and the commission.

“I hope that if Canada enters into any contract with the commission to do any type of work, it will have discussed it with the indigenous leaders and the survivors,” said Ms. Murray.

“How does their work incorporate Indigenous law?”

Ottawa must exclude itself

Some details of Ottawa’s thinking on the possibility of turning to the commission are contained in an undated briefing note prepared for the Deputy Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, which was released to The Canadian Press under federal freedom of information legislation.

The heavily redacted document says the government has heard “repeated calls from Indigenous leaders to develop a national strategy to identify unmarked graves and repatriate human remains.”

He says the communities have made it clear that Ottawa cannot be involved. Successive Canadian governments funded and supervised the residential school system, although churches operated the facilities.

“The first step in developing this strategy is engagement,” reads the briefing note, where it also states that the commission has “expertise exclusively focused on resolving the complex issue of identification and repatriation of human remains ».

“As an independent international organization [la commission] has a reputation as a trusted interlocutor with a strong reputation for independence and impartiality”.

The note then recounts how the organization worked with Quebec authorities to help identify some of those killed in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, when 47 people were killed after a tragic train derailment in downtown town.

Ms Murray said it is extremely important that investigations into unmarked graves remain independent of the Canadian government.

His office is particularly interested in the work of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, which has helped communities set up laboratories to investigate and attempt to identify the remains of those killed in its civil war.

The organization has specific experience working with indigenous communities, Murray said.


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