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Commission defends unmarked graves contract with Canada as some Indigenous leaders question deal

The top official at the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) wants to ease concerns the organization’s contract with the federal government could compromise its independence as it works with Indigenous communities in Canada.

“I don’t have those concerns,” said Kathryne Bomberger, director-general of the Netherlands-based organization, told CBC News earlier this month. 

Canada is paying the commission $2 million to offer Indigenous communities advice on unmarked burial sites tied to former residential schools, a deal some Indigenous leaders say they didn’t know about until it was announced.

Last week, United Nations Indigenous rights rapporteur José Francisco Calí Tzay said he heard “numerous concerns” about the arrangement during his 10-day official visit to Canada that ended March 10.

“I fully support Indigenous peoples’ calls for a survivor-centred, Indigenous-led investigation to mitigate against further harm,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

A man poses for a photo with hands crossed in front of him.
José Francisco Calí Tzay, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, delivered a preliminary report on March 10 following a 10-day trip across Canada. (Brett Forester/CBC)

The deal was reportedly concluded without consulting Indigenous peoples, Calí Tzay said, adding that investigations must respect Indigenous laws and protocols concerning grieving, death and burial.

Kimberly Murray, special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked burials at residential schools, first questioned the deal in a written brief to the UN rapporteur in late January.

Bomberger, who spoke with CBC News during the UN envoy’s visit, said the ICMP always puts survivor groups first, and was first contacted by an Indigenous community here. The commission has helped identify the disappeared in more than 40 countries, whether lost through war, human rights abuses or natural disasters.

In Canada, the ICMP will hold roundtable discussions, town halls and community engagement sessions before providing the federal government with a report. Among other things, the contract gives Canada the right to comment on the draft report and approve the final version before it’s published.

Bomberger said she understands why clauses like that may stir up concern given Indigenous communities’ distrust of the federal government, but she said the commission takes its independence seriously.

“This is a hugely political issue in every single area I’ve ever worked,” she said. 

“It’s a highly emotional issue, and I completely understand that. But I’m not worried about this being an independent report.”

International probe still needed, says national chief

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said she was glad to see the UN rapporteur highlight concerns because she too questions Canada’s motive for hiring the ICMP.

Hundreds of chiefs from across Canada meet twice annually to mandate the national chief, as head of the AFN, to advocate for the rights of First Nations people.

About a year ago, Archibald demanded a “full-fledged” independent international probe into whether acts of genocide were committed at Canadian residential schools, but she said no government official ever called her to discuss contracting the ICMP.

“I think that’s very problematic,” Archibald said on Friday, following the UN rapporteur’s report.

Archibald address delegates wearing her AFN headdress.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks during her closing address at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa in December. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

The church-run, state-funded residential school system operated for more than a century, separating an estimated 150,000 Indigenous kids from their parents in an effort to assimilate them into mainstream society.

Archibald still wants a fully independent genocide investigation in Canada, and worries Ottawa could use the ICMP arrangement to deflect from that.

“It could be a way for them to sidestep an international independent investigation because they can easily say, ‘Hey, listen, this what we’ve done. We’ve brought in people from The Hague,'” Archibald said. 

“That’s my main concern.”

For its part, the Canadian government has said a desire to support communities, whether they choose to use the commission’s services or not, motivated the ICMP’s hiring.

Sheila North, a Cree leader in Manitoba and former CBC broadcaster, works with the ICMP as a program manager for Canada. She said officials at Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) haven’t tried to control the process.

“I don’t see any direction coming from CIRNAC or anyone from the federal government,” she said.

“I haven’t received any notion of interference so far, and I don’t suspect any.”

Recovering remains from unmarked burials is technically, legally and logistically complicated. It can involve exhumation, forensic archaeology, genetic testing, DNA matching with living descendants and eventual reburial.

North said First Nations leaders she’s spoken to look forward to learning about this process and how it could, potentially, bring their children home. 

In the end, everyone must answer to the survivors, she said.

“Ultimately, this is justice for the dead.”

Bomberger said the commission’s first order of business is getting the deadline for its final report, initially scheduled for June, pushed back.

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