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Ottawa spending $2M on new unmarked graves report lacks 'transparency': official

Ottawa's decision to contract work around the search for unmarked graves to an non-Indigenous organization based in the Netherlands risks causing harm and lacks transparency, says a government-appointed adviser dedicated to the issue.
Kimberly Murray speaks after being appointed as Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, at a news conference in Ottawa June 8, 2022. A special appointee for unmarked graves says a federal decision to contract an international organization to engage with Indigenous communities on the issue lacks transparency and risks causing harm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Ottawa's decision to contract work around the search for unmarked graves to an non-Indigenous organization based in the Netherlands risks causing harm and lacks transparency, says a government-appointed adviser dedicated to the issue.

Kimberly Murray, who was tapped last year to serve as an independent special interlocutor on the matter, says she raised concerns directly with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller on his department's decision to spend $2 million to hire the International Commission on Missing Persons. 

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

"They have no competency with Indigenous people within Canada," said Murray, a former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation in Quebec. 

"They don't understand the constitutional regime that we're under. They don't understand Section 35 constitutional protected rights. They don't know anything about Indigenous laws and protocol."

Murray said her concerns are based on having spoken to the international commission — which has yet to respond to a request for comment. 

In its initial announcement of the contract earlier this week,Miller's office said the organization will undertake a "cross-country outreach campaign" with Indigenous communities looking to hear options to help identify or repatriate the possible remains of children who were forced to attend residential schools.

Following that engagement, which the minister's office says will be done through the help of "local Indigenous facilitators," the commission must provide its advice to government in a report.

But Murray said she is concerned with the lack of consultation done with Indigenous leadership before Ottawa inked the contract, which she believes must be released publicly.  

"There's no transparency," she said in a recent interview. "My concern is that it's not Indigenous-led. This is Canada-led."

Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said in a statement Friday that the centre "was not consulted in any meaningful way."

The centre requested that the international group meet with its staff or residential school survivors prior to signing the agreement, but that didn't happen, Scott added.

She said the centre has been in touch with Miller's office in hopes of addressing "concerns" about the scope and details of the agreement, "to ensure it does not re-traumatize survivors" or create any "false expectations" about what engaging the international group might accomplish. 

"This is a highly sensitive matter," Scott said.

"The technical agreement must not duplicate existing work currently underway that is led by Indigenous Peoples regarding missing children and unmarked burials but support their efforts to find all the children."

Beyond the commission's lack of experience working with residential school survivors, Murray said she is concerned about why the government is seeking another report on the matter when her office was already set up to provide it with advice. 

"They've created Indigenous-led processes, but at the same time, it's almost like they need a shadow report from a non-Indigenous entity for it to have any kind of credibility," she said.

"And they're doing it sort of behind closed doors."

In response to the concerns Murray is raising, a spokeswoman for Miller's office said late Thursday that "agreements and documents will be shared when (it is) appropriate to do so, with input from all parties."  

His office has explained that the decision to turn to the commission came after it received calls from some First Nations asking for additional tools to help in their searches. 

A heavily redacted briefing note obtained by The Canadian Press last fall shows that federal officials considered the commission to be trusted independent agency. 

And in the past, northern Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton has called on the government to bring in international experts such as the missing persons commission to assist communities. 

Ottawa began taking a more proactive role in supporting the searches in spring2021, following an announcement by the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Nation that it had detected 215 possible unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. 

That resulted in a widespread outpouring of grief and more concerted calls for justice.

Since then, First Nations across Western Canada and in parts of Ontario have announced what are believed to be hundreds more unmarked graves, leading to questions about how to preserve the sites and search for possible remains. 

In light of the discoveries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government created Murray's post and announced the establishment of a national advisory committee on missing children and unmarked graves.

Forensic pathologist Kona Williams serves as a member of the committee, which recently released a guide for First Nations to use as they conduct their searches.

Williams has also expressed concern about the government's hiring of the international commission. 

"There needs to be transparency, communication and collaboration with Indigenous people before entering agreements that directly affect us," she said in a tweet. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2023

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press