Ottawa has named a special interlocutor to ensure culturally appropriate treatment of unmarked graves and burial sites at former residential schools, a year after the country faced a reckoning over the deaths of children at the schools.
Kimberly Murray, a lawyer and member of the Kanesatake Mohawk Nation in Quebec, will take up a two-year mandate as special interlocutor. She will work with Indigenous governments, advocacy organizations, survivors and families to provide recommendations to the federal government on how to commemorate and protect the grave sites. Ms. Murray’s mandate, however, stops short of investigating or prosecuting possible crimes associated with the sites.
Ms. Murray’s appointment was made a year after several First Nations announced the discovery of unmarked graves on former residential school sites, leading to mourning across the country and calls for the federal government to help investigate the sites. In May, 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said it found around 200 probable unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School using ground-penetrating radar.
Ms. Murray is the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and now the executive lead of the Survivors’ Secretariat at the Six Nations of the Grand River, an effort to find and identify unmarked graves on the grounds associated with the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Ontario.
At Wednesday’s press conference alongside Indigenous leaders, Justice Minister David Lametti and other government officials, Ms. Murray spoke directly to residential school survivors.
“I appreciate everything you have done to raise our collective awareness about the violence perpetrated against you, your families and your communities,” she said. “I promise that I will do everything in my power to ensure that the office of the special interlocutor is here to help and not do further harm.”
Ms. Murray emphasized the importance of listening to survivors and countering those who deny the harm of residential schools. She said she plans to begin her work by taking direction from Elders, as well as with Haudenosaunee teachings she has received, specifically on the condolence ceremony.
“This ceremony will remove the tears from my eyes, so that I can see clearly. It will clear my ears, so that I can prepare to hear properly. And it will remove the lumps in my throat, so that I can communicate clearly,” she said.
Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, who attended the press conference virtually, expressed her community’s support for Ms. Murray’s appointment.
“We are conducting an investigation, pursuant to our inherent jurisdiction, to look at steps towards finding out how many children there are; who they were, who their people are, their families, the communities that they came from; how they died and came to be buried here; and how they should be cared for and the justice that needs to be sought,” Ms. Casimir said.
Ms. Murray, who will begin her work on June 14, is slated to release an interim report after one year, and another at the end of her term. The interlocutor’s mandate does not include provisions for the investigation and prosecution of possible crimes associated with burial sites, an omission that drew ire from some Indigenous leaders when the position was announced last year.
In a statement, Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek said while a special interlocutor is “one element needed to move forward with protecting unmarked burial sites,” the AFN will continue to push for an “independent criminal investigation.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the former academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, had previously expressed skepticism about the role, but was hopeful Ms. Murray would hold the government accountable.
“I wish the interlocutor well in her work, and believe she will knock down barriers inside the government of Canada that have prevented this work from being completed to date,” said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, who is also a University of British Columbia law professor. “If those barriers are immovable, I believe we will hear from her on that as well.”
Last year, Ms. Turpel-Lafond told The Globe and Mail she had stopped helping the government to conceptualize the interlocutor posting because she didn’t feel Ottawa was dedicated enough to pursuing criminal probes related to residential schools. This week, she sounded hopeful that Ms. Murray’s work could help pave the way for that work.
“I expect we will see initial and final reports that call for substantial legal change to support investigation, and completion of this work, informed by human rights principles,” she said in an e-mail.
Asked if Ms. Murray’s mandate could lead to criminal prosecutions, Mr. Lametti acknowledged that “accountability and the lack of prosecutions” is something that survivors and Indigenous communities have repeatedly pointed to. He said Ms. Murray’s work will field questions about prosecutions and how to move forward.
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