After concerns, Ottawa pauses work on $2-million contract for help on unmarked graves

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

The federal government has paused and plans to rework a $2-million contract with an international group hired to provide advice on identifying and locating the unmarked graves of children who attended residential schools. 

A spokesman for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree says Ottawa has “heard the concerns raised by Indigenous partners” about the contract with the International Commission on Missing Persons. 

“We are working to determine a path forward,” said a written statement from Matthieu Perrotin. 

Ottawa signed a technical agreement with the Netherlands-based commission in February, in which it is slated to work with Indigenous communities.

First Nations across Western Canada and parts of Ontario have used ground-penetrating radar technology to try locating possible graves at former residential schools.

The searches began in earnest after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced in May 2021 that the technology had helped to identify what it believed were more than 200 unmarked graves at a former institution in Kamloops, B.C.

Attawapiskat First Nation member Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, whose father was a residential school survivor, says she saw the hiring of the commission as a “golden opportunity” to get help with the search.

“We’ve lived with ambiguous loss,” she told The Canadian Press in a recent interview. 

“They live with us psychologically, but they’re physically absent.”

She added there were never proper rituals for the mourning or burial of lost loved ones. “It’s almost like we’re living in limbo.”

The commission specializes in working with governments and organizations around the world to find people who have disappeared. It conducted such work in Canada after the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that left 47 people dead. 

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

Shortly after the contract was announced, however, it got heavy criticism from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and a special interlocutor the government appointed to probe the issue.

The centre and interlocutor Kimberly Murray, a former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, voiced concerns about the international’s group lack of Indigenous background. 

Both said such work must be Indigenous-led in order to avoid harming communities. 

The centre added that the group’s work appeared to overlap with the efforts of an Indigenous-led advisory committee that was already in place, and Murray questioned its independence from Ottawa. 

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said in a statement that it has “paused work to consider how to amend the technical arrangement with the International Commission on Missing Persons to ensure that the most appropriate path forward is being taken.”

The statement added that “Canada will continue to provide support for communities that wish to engage with the (group) for its technical expertise,” it added.

The department said the organization is the only one in the world that “exclusively works on the issue of missing persons” and operates independently of Canada. 

The government did not detail the specific changes it wants to make, but the international group confirmed that it intends to sign an amended agreement and begin its work next year. 

Curtis Mallet said on behalf of the commission that there have been efforts to increase awareness and build relationships and trust with First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential school survivors across Canada.

“We have done this by replacing the intended individual community engagement sessions with larger presentations and participation at regional and national gatherings and assemblies,” Mallet said in an email.

He acknowledged the concerns that have been raised about his group’s involvement.

The commission has also had to grapple with the departure of Sheila North, a First Nations leader in Manitoba, who was slated to help to facilitate community gatherings.

She stepped away to run for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which is holding an election next week.

The commission is looking to find her replacement “in the very near future,” Mallet said.

He added that Canada must answer for its human-rights record and the legacy of residential schools, and said the commission was helping it to do that on the international stage.

Hookimaw-Witt said she found out last month that the department was reconsidering the group’s role.

Despite others’ worries, she said she still hopes to be able to work with the group. 

“Let the people decide. We want this, so let us have it,” she said. “Don’t take it away from us.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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