Unmarked graves progress report outlines major concerns about access to records, lands, funding

Unmarked graves progress report outlines major concerns about access to records, lands, funding

Just months into her mandate, the special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves associated with residential schools says major concerns about access to records, lands, and funding have been expressed by residential school survivors, families, and communities.

That’s according to a progress report Kimberly Murray submitted to Justice Minister David Lametti on Nov. 10.

I don’t think there’s anything surprising in the report,” said Murray, who is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanesatake, Que.

“It’s what everyone’s been saying for the last year about the barriers and concerns that everyone’s facing. But… some of the things that communities are investigating are quite shocking.”

Murray was appointed by the federal government in June with a two-year mandate to provide recommendations for a federal legal framework for the treatment and protection of burial sites of children at former residential schools. 

Since beginning her mandate, she’s hosted a national gathering that brought over 300 attendees to Edmonton in September, and has met with several communities that have embarked on searches of their own.

Murray said that through these conversations, it’s clear a major barrier is accessing records from institutions like Library and Archives Canada, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), and church entities.

“There is a real need for this open access to records,” said Murray.

“It’s quite clear that there’s a lot of lack of knowledge of how to access some of the information so that they can find their loved ones.”

Murray said there is a need for more transparency and information on how to access records in a timely fashion. 

“The delay in getting the records is really not acceptable,” she said.

“Communities have been waiting months and months to get access to the records.”

Unmarked graves progress report outlines major concerns about access to records, lands, funding
Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, goes through some of the early 20th century photos sent by priests from various residential schools to the Oblates. (Submitted by Raymond Frogner)

The delays are something Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the NCTR, knows all too well. He said after the discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites last year, the centre has been inundated with requests.

There is currently a backlog of 450 inquiries for individual survivor sets of records, and they are also working with over 35 communities across the country that are doing unmarked burial research.

“We know for a fact that that number is going to at least double within the next year,” said Frogner.

“We’ve hired more staff to deal with the backlog and we continue to hire more staff but those are our challenges and we continue to get more records to respond to inquiries from across the country.”

Insufficient funding, access to lands, justice

According to Murray’s report, there are calls to a establish a commission of inquiry or a tribunal, to prosecute individual perpetrators and hold institutions accountable. 

The international criminal court can’t hear matters related to deaths associated with residential schools as they occurred before the court was created.

“Moving forward, I’m going to be having some roundtables and bringing international experts together about other possibilities that could exist,” said Murray.

Conducting searches at sites owned by corporations or private landowners is another concern. Murray reports that in some situations, federal, provincial and municipal governments are not taking active steps to protect sites from development or to support access. 

“We’re seeing that communities are hiring lawyers to deal with these situations,” said Murray.

That brings up another concern as there are restrictions on what federal funding can be used for — legal advice is excluded. Insufficient funding was also a concern when it comes to long-term funding for wellness supports. 

Minister reviewing report

Lametti said in a statement to CBC News that he is reviewing the report. 

“We must seek justice for all the children who never made it home and we are committed to working with First Nations, Inuit and Métis survivors, families, communities and leaders to ensure this is done,” he said.

Unmarked graves progress report outlines major concerns about access to records, lands, funding
Minister of Justice David Lametti participates in a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in June. Lametti says he is reviewing the progress report. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

He said they’ve had “frank and productive” discussions with Indigenous leadership about next steps to support communities and survivors.

“Our government is committed to working with affected Indigenous communities across Canada to protect graves and burial sites using all available measures, including the criminal law,” he said.

Engagement plan

Murray’s office will host another gathering in Winnipeg next week on the topic of addressing trauma in the search and recovery of missing children.

Gatherings are also planned for Vancouver in January on Indigenous data sovereignty, and for Toronto in March on upholding Indigenous law.

Unmarked graves progress report outlines major concerns about access to records, lands, funding
This small empty chair was placed in a conference room of an Edmonton hotel at a national gathering in September, to represent the spirits of children who never returned home from Canada’s residential school system. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“The work is bringing community members together and communities are having really difficult conversations,” she said.

“[Survivors] are starting to talk to each other and talk to their children and their grandchildren about what happened to them. That’s all really important for healing.”

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