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International organization says Indigenous families will lead unmarked graves report

International Commission on Missing Persons tapped to conduct a cross-country outreach campaign
Kathryne Bomberger, director-general of the International Commission on Missing Persons, reacts during an interview in The Hague, Netherlands on Friday, April 8, 2022. Bomberger says families are central to addressing the issue of missing children and unmarked burials. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Peter Dejong

The head of an international organization brought in by the federal government to provide communities with options for identifying possible human remains buried near former residential school sites says Indigenous families must lead the way.

“The families are central to addressing the issue of missing children and unmarked burials,” Kathryne Bomberger, director general of the International Commission on Missing Persons, said in a news release.

“Their needs and their knowledge must lead the way.”

The federal government signed a technical agreement Friday with the organization to conduct a cross-country outreach campaign with Indigenous communities that wish to explore options for the identification and repatriation of remains.

The commission said it will conduct information sessions and provide expert information on DNA analysis and other forensic approaches, but communities are not required to employ their services.

The organization is also to draft a report that examines future strategies for repatriation of remains that it says will respect local knowledge and information provided by Indigenous communities that participated in the process.

Based in The Hague, the organization specializes in identifying the remains of those who are killed or missing in major conflicts and disasters, including in Canada after the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail catastrophe.

Some communities and leaders have said they will welcome the advice and information, but others have expressed concern that a non-Indigenous organization was given $2 million from the federal government to do the work.

“They have no competency with Indigenous people within Canada,” Kimberly Murray, who was tapped last year to serve as an independent special interlocutor on the matter, said earlier this month.

Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, has also said the centre “was not consulted in any meaningful way.”

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools over a century in Canada and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report detailed that many experienced emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse. It estimated about 6,000 Indigenous children died while being forced to attend the church-run, federally funded institutions.

First Nations across the country have been using survivors’ stories, research, community knowledge and ground-penetrating radar technology to search land near former residential schools for possible graves.

A news release from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said the organization’s work will be independent from the federal government. Local Indigenous facilitators will lead every step of the process to ensure it is inclusive and respectful of cultural protocol, the department said.

“Indigenous communities across Canada are leading the difficult and important work of uncovering the truth at the sites of former residential schools, and our government will continue to support them in that process, whether they choose to use the services … or not,” Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said in the release.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

— Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press