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Feds will manage group providing options on residential school unmarked burials

The Canadian government will heavily supervise an international group hired to provide Indigenous communities with options on unmarked burials at former residential school sites, a contract released Friday shows.

Publication of Ottawa’s $2-million technical arrangement with The Hague-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) follows criticism from Kimberly Murray, the special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves.

Murray expressed concerns last week the agreement contains an unreasonable timeline, overlaps with her mandate and gives bureaucrats at Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) too much power.

“It’s very controlled by CIRNAC,” she said. 

The now-public contract confirms CIRNAC retains broad oversight of the commission — including the right to comment on its draft report, participate in meetings and request briefings at any time — while it operates domestically.

The ICMP works with governments and civil society groups all over the world to help locate people gone missing through armed conflict, human rights abuses, disasters and other causes. 

While Murray praised the commission’s work and said it offers Indigenous communities an important option, she called the process too cozy with Ottawa.

The deal taps a CIRNAC representative, whose name is censored in the published contract, to be “responsible for all matters concerning the content of the work” the commission will carry out.

That means conducting countrywide engagement with Indigenous communities on options for the identification and repatriation of missing children, including assessing interest in DNA matching and other forensic approaches, the statement of work says.

The ICMP will provide this official with bi-weekly overviews following engagement sessions, roundtable discussions and town halls. A senior government official will join the commission to offer introductory remarks at opening and closing town hall meetings.

The commission will convene an in-person roundtable discussion of roughly 25 technical experts “with participation from CIRNAC,” the deal says.

CIRNAC officials will further attend these events “as appropriate and determined by CIRNAC.” The commission agreed to identify eight regional Indigenous facilitators “with input from CIRNAC” to help.

The ICMP will provide CIRNAC with a work plan, a rolling schedule of engagement sessions, an outline of materials and various other documents. The commission will maintain regular communication with CIRNAC and “provide ad hoc written status updates” at any time.

Report can be published ‘subject to Canada’s approval’

Once all this is done, CIRNAC’s representative will get the chance to review and comment on the commission’s draft report, supplied in a format pre-determined by the government, by May 15, 2023. 

The commission will then provide its final report by June 15, 2023.

The commission retains the right to publish the document “after the acceptance of the report and subject to Canada’s approval.” The ICMP agreed confidential information will stay secret.

Kimberly Murray speaks at a podium.
Kimberly Murray speaks after being appointed as Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, at a news conference in Ottawa June 8, 2022. (Justin Tsang/The Canadian Press)

Murray further questioned whether the commission has sufficient expertise concerning Indigenous rights, sovereignty, self-determination and protocols in a Jan. 30 submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and ICMP director-general Kathryne Bomberger addressed some of those concerns in their joint release Friday.

“Indigenous communities across Canada are leading the difficult and important work of uncovering the truth at the sites of former residential schools, and our government will continue to support them in that process, whether they choose to use the services of the ICMP or not,” Miller said.

Bomberger said the group looks forward to meeting with Indigenous communities across Canada to explore options for identification and repatriation of remains.

“The families of the missing are central to addressing the issue of missing children and unmarked burials,” she said in the release.

“Their needs, knowledge and views must lead the way.”

On Friday, Murray said Canada, as financer and administrator of the residential school system, is in a conflict of interest.

“They’re the perpetrators,” Murray said.

“These are investigations about genocide, and it’s the state that committed the genocide, so they want to know what’s happening every step of the way.”

She said she remains concerned and plans to push for amendments to the deal that increase survivor involvement and eliminate Ottawa’s power to influence the final report.

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