Location of suspected Indigenous graves: Ottawa reviews its treaty | The tragic fate of Aboriginal residential school victims

The federal government is taking a break and plans to explore a $2 million contract with an international agency to provide advice on identifying and locating unmarked graves of Indigenous children who attended residential schools.

A spokesman for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said Ottawa did so heard the concerns of Indigenous partners regarding the contract concluded with the International Commission for Missing Persons. Matthieu Perrotin wrote in an email that the ministry would determine how to proceed.

Indigenous communities in western Canada and parts of Ontario have used ground-penetrating radar technology to locate possible graves near former federal residential schools.

The search began in earnest after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced in May 2021 that technology had helped locate what it said were more than 200 unmarked graves near a former boarding school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Ottawa signed a technical agreement in February with the Netherlands-based international commission to work with indigenous communities.

The International Commission on Missing Persons works with governments and organizations around the world. She conducted such work in Canada after the Lac-Mégantic train disaster in 2013, which killed 47 people.

As part of its contract with the federal government, the commission planned to launch an outreach campaign to communities that expressed interest in learning more about how DNA analysis and other forensic techniques could help.

No indigenous background

But the contract award quickly drew strong criticism from the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation and the independent special interlocutor appointed by the government to investigate the matter.

The center and its spokesperson, Kimberly Murray, former director of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, raised concerns about the lack of Indigenous background in the international organization. Both said this work must be led by Indigenous peoples to avoid harm to communities.

The center added that the organization’s work appears to overlap with the efforts of an existing Indigenous-led advisory committee. For her part, Ms. Murray questioned the independence of the international commission in relation to Ottawa that had given her the mandate.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said in a written statement that this was the case has paused its work to consider how to amend the technical agreement with the International Commission on Missing Persons to ensure that the most appropriate path is taken.

The ministry adds Canada will continue to support communities that wish to work with the (international commission) for its technical expertise.

The government has not spelled out the specific changes it wants to make to the contract, but the panel has confirmed its intention to sign an amended agreement and start work next year.

Curtis Mallet, speaking on behalf of the commission, said efforts have been made to raise awareness and build relationships and trust with survivors of First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential schools across Canada.

For this reason, we have replaced scheduled individual community engagement sessions with more comprehensive presentations and participation in regional and national meetingssaid Mr. Mallet in an email. He also acknowledged concerns raised about his organization’s involvement in the matter.

The commission also faced the departure of Sheila North, an Indigenous leader from Manitoba who was supposed to help organize community meetings. North resigned to run for the position of national leader of the Assembly of First Nations, which will hold an election next week.

The Commission is trying to replace them in the very near futuresuggested Mr. Mallet.

Jillian Snider

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