December 4, 2023

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Winnipeg-based group ‘deeply concerned’ by federal contract with international group to advise on graves

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says there are many problems with a $2 million contract Ottawa signed with an international group to give advice on unmarked graves.

The Winnipeg-based centre said it is “deeply concerned” with the decision by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to hire a Netherlands-based organization to launch “an extremely sensitive engagement process” on issues surrounding possible gravesites near former residential schools.

“Beginning with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, there has been a clear understanding that any work related to the harms caused by the residential school system must be led by Indigenous peoples and that survivors must be at the heart of this work,” Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, who chairs the centre’s governing circle, said in a statement on Monday.

“Putting the planned engagement process in the hands of a non-Indigenous [organization] is a misstep, and a very worrying one at that.”

The federal government recently announced it had hired the International Commission on Missing Persons to provide it with advice, based on an outreach campaign with different communities interested in hearing possible options around DNA and other forensic techniques.

While Ottawa says it hired the commission because of the feedback from communities and it has a mandate to assist their searches, the centre and other advocates say the work around unmarked graves must happen independent of the federal government, since it funded the church-run residential school system in the first place.

Kisha Supernant was caught off guard by the federal government’s awarding of the contract.

Kisha Supernant is the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, as well as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. (Omayra Issa/CBC)

Supernant — who is the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta as well as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials — said Monday that Ottawa is undermining the trust of Indigenous-led groups and communities.

“There isn’t a good history between the federal government and Indigenous communities. And certainly around this issue of residential schools, there’s a lot of past tension,” she said.

This decision “just kind of reinforces that sense that the government is going to do what it decides to do, and that may not always be what communities actually need.”

Supernant would like to have seen Ottawa have more consultation with the National Advisory Committee and the Office of the Special Interlocutor on Missing Children and Unmarked Graves before signing the deal with the International Commission on Missing Persons.

Last week, the commission released a copy of the technical agreement it had signed with the government in January, confirming the final report will be due to the federal government by mid-June, with officials allowed to comment on drafts.

The agreement itself also states Indigenous facilitators will be hired to be present at the discussions and meet the “spiritual and ceremonial” needs of participants throughout the process.

Stephanie Scott, executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, said seeing the agreement itself raises more questions.

A woman with long black hair and grey streaks wearing a blue jacket looks away from the camera with a trees in the background.
Stephanie Scott, the executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, says seeing the federal government’s agreement with a Netherlands-based company to give advice on unmarked grave raises many questions. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

The centre provided a list of where it says the agreement falls short and risks causing further harm to Indigenous communities and survivors.

Among its concerns are that the contract does not say the commission’s work needs to take place in a trauma-informed way, and that it fails to recognize the central role residential school survivors must play.

Even more egregiously, the centre suggested, is the appearance that the work Ottawa is contracting out overlaps with Indigenous-led efforts that are already underway. This “implies a purposeful undermining of their work,” the centre’s statement said.

The agreement does not mention the need to work with the national advisory committee the government has already tasked to explore the issues around unmarked graves and missing children, the centre said. Nor does it mention the special independent interlocuter, Kimberly Murray, who was also appointed to work on the matter.

A man wearing a grey cap, a black jacket and yellow gloves speaks at a podium.
Residential school survivor Eugene Arcand says he cannot understand why Ottawa would look to an international group for such sensitive discussions. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Eugene Arcand, who sits as a member of its survivors circle, said he cannot understand why Ottawa would look to an international group that lacks knowledge of the residential school system and “cultural competency” needed for such sensitive discussions.

Supernant agreed.

“One of the dangers is when this process happens without clear leadership from Indigenous peoples, is that there’s a real danger that we re-traumatize survivors, that we undermine trust,” she said. “There needs to be respect for the processes that are put in place as opposed to turning to an international body without that guidance.”

The centre said it has already raised concerns with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and plans to make more recommendations.

His office said the agreement is subject to amendments to be “jointly considered” by federal officials and the international commission.