When Canada appoints an Indigenous lawyer to independently lead consultation efforts on how to go about searching for and reclaiming what could be thousands of lost Indigenous children and unmarked graves and burial sites, Canadian leaders should not second-guess her – they do not have that right.
Yet the federal government appears to have done just that. Last June, it appointed Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation lawyer Kimberly Murray as a special interlocutor charged with leading this sacred effort. Now, Ottawa will spend $2-million to bring in the International Commission on Missing Persons to provide very similar support – without Ms. Murray’s full approval, nor the approval of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The ICMP, an international “independent treaty-based” organization headquartered in The Hague, has made a worthy name for itself by doing the hard work of bringing war criminals to justice. It is experienced in sifting through the most horrific humanitarian crimes, from Syria to Iraq; it has access to forensic anthropologists, archaeologists and a DNA lab that is able to handle thousands of samples. What it doesn’t have is an invitation from Ms. Murray or the NCTR.
Ms. Murray, the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has been leading consultation efforts through her independent office that answers to no one except Indigenous survivors, families and communities. To that end, she has been touring the country, holding meetings with government and church officials, and hosting gatherings with survivors and families to discuss what they need and what should be done next, in regards to DNA analysis, the potential recovery of remains and testing for evidence of harm. I attended a gathering in Edmonton as a rapporteur last September – listening and presenting how to go about finding and obtaining school records.
On Wednesday, however, Ms. Murray met with Justice Minister David Lametti in person to register her concerns. “I wanted clarity on my mandate and that Canada was committed to an Indigenous-led process,” she said in an interview.
Kathryne Bomberger, the director-general of the ICMP, told me in an interview on Wednesday that the organization plans to conduct information sessions and a countrywide outreach campaign to inform communities about their options on identifying and repatriating the remains of the missing, and that it will file a report to examine future strategies. She said the ICMP was approached nearly two years ago by a northern Cree community in Manitoba after the discovery of nearly 215 possible unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
But is it necessary to duplicate what is already being done? The gatherings Ms. Murray has led are beautiful, wrapped in ceremony and essential for healing. Communities should have as many as they need. What they don’t need is more studies.
Ms. Bomberger says the purpose of the ICMP’s report is to “distill a snapshot of where the Indigenous communities are.” She says an international human-rights lens on what has happened here is needed.
With no disrespect to Ms. Bomberger or to Sheila North Wilson, the ICMP’s new program manager and the former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak: Why can’t the ICMP work for, or at least with, the special interlocutor and the NCTR?
Ms. North-Wilson has long been a tireless campaigner for the rights of Indigenous peoples. She told me she does not want to “redo” what the interlocutor’s office has finished. Rather, she wants to tap into what has already been done, get to work on searching and give communities choice – all while making sure communities aren’t taken advantage of by potentially unscrupulous groups moving in to “help” First Nations with searches.
Ms. Murray notes the ICMP agreement does not say that the organization will come in and handle exhumations and DNA tests; instead, they’ll lay a foundation of coming in to do the work. “We have to have reparations for reconciliation,” she said. “I don’t think what they are proposing to do with this agreement is about reparations. It is not about building capacity in community for the long haul, and Canada is controlling it every step of the way.” For instance, the ICMP report can go to Ottawa first for approval before being released, she said.
Ms. Murray has no problem working with the ICMP, she says. But Canada must fix the agreement so that it fits with the efforts already being done. This, rather than undercutting her, would be an act of reconciliation.