A Guatemala-based forensic anthropology organization is extending its hand to Indigenous Peoples in Canada looking to potentially recover remains of children on the grounds of former residential schools.
Fredy Peccerelli, a founding member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, has been working for nearly 30 years to bring home bodies of the “disappeared” – Maya civilians who were killed during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996.
He said he’s seen first-hand how the pain caused by the loss of family members and their missing remains can rupture through generations and communities.
“It doesn’t go away,” he said.
Peccerelli said his group’s Indigenous-led excavations identify the remains of as many as 125 people per year, on average, which are returned to families and communities.
More than 8,000 bodies have been recovered in the organization’s exhumations in Guatemala, and nearly half, or 3,800, have been identified. In some instances, criminal cases have been launched as a result of their work.
In Canada, Indigenous Peoples have been grappling with how to bring deceased family members home from the grounds of former residential schools.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, of which more than 60 per cent were run by the Catholic Church.
Survivors of the schools have been speaking for decades about the possibility of unmarked graves at the sites, prompting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to release a report on missing children and unmarked burials in 2016.
But it wasn’t until 2021, when Tk’emlups te Secwepemc announced its finding of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., that the country and the world took notice.
Peccerelli was one of those outside of Canada who watched keenly as the news emerged.
He said his first thought was that First Nations should develop an independent Indigenous-led forensics team similar to his organization’s.
“No one is going to treat (searches) with as much respect and dignity, and for as long as it takes to do it, like First Nations people,” said Peccerelli. “It’s the most dignified way.”
He added that his group has worked with others in Mexico and Rwanda to train people on how to collect DNA, excavate graves and repatriate remains.
It is willing to do the same in Canada.
Peccerelli isn’t the only person to say that Indigenous actors should be at the forefront of searches for children’s remains.
Kimberly Murray, the federally appointed special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites, has cited the Guatemalan organization’s work as an example of how things could unfold in Canada.
A recent report from the Senate’s Indigenous Peoples committee quoted Murray expressing concerns with the federal government’s handling of potential residential school searches.
Earlier this year, the government signed a technical arrangement with the International Commission on Missing Persons, an organization based in The Hague that works to find people missing due to armed conflict, human-rights abuses and disasters.
The group was engaged to consult with Indigenous communities about the options they have to identify and repatriate missing children.
But Murray said Ottawa didn’t first consult with Indigenous-led organizations and advisory bodies that have experience working with survivors and missing children, adding she didn’t believe the international group had the “cultural competency” or experience to hold engagement sessions with Indigenous communities in Canada.
She also expressed concerns that the federal government would be too involved in the work, and would retain control over any data the group collected, despite its promise that the work would be conducted independently.
Saskatchewan-based lawyer Donald Worme, a member of Kawacatoose First Nation, is on board with increasing the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala’s reach in Canada.
In a recent interview, Worme said he was hired by Tk’emlups te Secwepemc in the days after the 215 anomalies were publicly announced, mainly to assist with managing communications and the legal implications of what was happening.
“We had to immediately assess the circumstances for ourselves and determine what measures had been taken in other jurisdictions,” said Worme. “There was no blueprint here in Canada.”
Worme began looking to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the exhumations of citizens who were murdered in the Tulsa Riots were going on at the time. Then he looked at the Rwandan Genocide and other instances of mass killings around the globe.
He began compiling experts from across Canada on methodologies that could be used in locating missing persons and unmarked graves, and eventually came across the Guatemalan group.
But COVID-19 prevented any work beyond discussions.
Still, he said the exhumation of potential graves cannot be done without Indigenous Peoples at the centre. He’s quoted as saying the same in the Senate’s report.
“We cannot leave the sacred work to be done by others without the intense and specific knowledge that is necessary to undertake this,” said Worme. “It’s sacred work, and seen as a responsibility.”
At the same time, that sacred work is being discredited by some Canadians who are escalating residential school denialism, he said.
“This violence is prolific,” Murray’s interim report said. “And takes place via e-mail, telephone, social media, op-eds and, at times, through in-person confrontations.”
Murray listed several examples, including when people attempted to dig at the site of the former Kamloops residential school.
“(Canadians) cannot take it upon themselves to go in graves,” said Worme. Residential school denialism “manifests itself not just in denialism, but in actual acts of hatred,” he said, including the disturbance of potential graves.
He added: “I find it incongruent that we have Individuals prepared to go and dig up graves because they want some kind of ‘exposure,’ but we don’t have them at the Brady Landfill (in Winnipeg) looking for the three Indigenous women” who are believed to be buried in the Prairie Green Landfill after being dumped there by a serial killer.
But what exhumations would tell the communities is that Indigenous Peoples and residential school survivors love their ancestors who never made it home, and that they have hope they can once again return.
Still, “there’s a segment of the Canadian public that doesn’t even believe we’re human,” said Worme. “So I’m not sure they’re ever going to believe.”
In the meantime, searches have already begun in Canada.
Last month, members of Minegoziibe Anishinabe, a First Nation located northwest of Winnipeg, began work with archaeologists and scientists from Brandon University to search the grounds of the former Pine Creek Residential School.
Minegoziibe Anishinabe is believed to be one of the first communities in Canada to begin conducting such a search.
– With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg
This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.