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Kimberly Murray, right, sits with Minister of Justice David Lametti after she was announced as the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, at a news conference in Ottawa, on June 8, 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor on missing children, unmarked graves and burial sites associated with residential schools, says she has met with Canada’s new Justice Minister and hopes he will move to address “denialism.”

Ms. Murray, who was given a two-year mandate last year to work closely with Indigenous communities, released an interim report in June that detailed how “denialists” are attacking the communities that announce possible unmarked graves. “This violence is prolific,” the report said. “And takes place via e-mail, telephone, social media, op-eds and, at times, through in-person confrontations.”

The report included a call that “urgent consideration” be given to create legal mechanisms to deal with the problem, including “the implementation of both civil and criminal sanctions.”

One of the examples cited in Ms. Murray’s report involved the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, which announced in 2021 that ground-penetrating radar had discovered unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Denialism came in many forms, Ms. Murray said in the report – from attacks on social media to people showing up in “the middle of the night, carrying shovels.”

“I think we need to send a message that it is not okay,” Ms. Murray told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

Ms. Murray said denialism is never going to be fully addressed by one piece of legislation, but she said changes, such as amending the Criminal Code to make it a crime to incite hate against residential-school survivors, could help facilitate discussion.

“People start to talk about it and think about it and educate themselves about it,” she said, adding it’s also necessary to make it very clear that people cannot incite hate against survivors.

Ms. Murray said she met virtually on Aug. 8 with Arif Virani, who became the new federal Justice Minister in last month’s cabinet shuffle. She said she hopes he will embrace the issue, especially given his background in human rights.

Prior to entering politics, Mr. Virani practised law for 15 years. He served as an analyst with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa and as an assistant trial lawyer prosecuting genocide cases at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

“I’m hopeful he will be a strong voice,” Ms. Murray said.

In a statement, Mr. Virani said residential schools are “part of the horrific legacy of colonialism and racism which characterized Canada’s approach to Indigenous peoples.” He said the government will give proper consideration to Ms. Murray’s recommendations as it awaits her final report next year.

Residential schools operated across the country from 1831 to 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent six years documenting the effects of the institutions, said 4,100 children died while attending residential schools. TRC chairman Murray Sinclair has said the actual number could top 20,000.

“We cannot and we should not ignore the lasting impact these schools had on Indigenous peoples, and the legacy of that impact which carries on today,” Mr. Virani said. “The denial of the atrocities that took place is painful for those who lived through them, survivors and families.”

Mr. Virani’s predecessor, David Lametti, was serving as justice minister when Ms. Murray’s interim report was released. At the time, Mr. Lametti said that he was open to all possibilities to fight residential-school denialism, including “a legal solution and outlawing it.” He also said Canada could look at the example of other countries that have criminalized Holocaust denial.

NDP MP Leah Gazan, a member of the Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation located in Saskatchewan, agrees with Ms. Murray that legal mechanisms need to be urgently considered to address denialism, saying it is a “growing problem.”

“I believe that legislation deeming residential-school denialism as hate speech is needed,” she said.

“Parliament unanimously recognized residential schools as an act of genocide, and downplaying, denying or justifying the genocide that was perpetrated against Indigenous children is a form of hate,” she said.

Last week, Chief Derek Nepinak of Minegoziibe Anishinabe posted a video on social media detailing results of an excavation conducted on the site of a former residential school in Manitoba.

Mr. Nepinak said there was no conclusive evidence of human remains in the excavation of ground under a church basement. He said the results did not take away “the difficult truths experienced by our families who attended the residential school in Pine Creek” and feared the work would feed into a “denialist narrative” about what happened at residential schools.

Ms. Murray said she has received e-mails after the announcement, adding that denialists attempt to “hang their hat” on a finding such as this.

The burden of countering denialism should not rest on the shoulders of survivors, she said. Those who hold records and know what took place at institutions, such as the federal government and the churches, need to do more to speak up in the face of residential-school denialism, she added.

For example, she said there are blueprints where cemeteries are plotted and death certificates indicating that children were buried on residential-school grounds.

“We need to have people step up. It shouldn’t be on the survivors to do it.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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