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Ottawa spending $2M for international commission to offer advice on unmarked graves

Organization will undertake a cross-country outreach campaign with Indigenous communities
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa is spending $2 million for an international organization to provide First Nations with options around identifying possible human remains buried near residential schools.

A statement from the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says it is signing a technical agreement with the International Commission on Missing Persons.

Based out of The Hague, the organization works in different countries to help identify the remains of those who have disappeared or been killed in conflicts and disasters, including after the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec.

Miller’s office says the organization will undertake a “cross-country outreach campaign” with Indigenous communities interested in options to help identify or repatriate the possible remains of children who were forced to attend residential schools.

It says the group will provide expert information on DNA analysis and “other forensic approaches for consideration” and then prepare a final report for the federal government.

Miller’s office says the organization’s work will be independent from the government and that “local Indigenous facilitators will lead every step of the process” to ensure discussions happen in a sensitive way.

“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 (organization) or not,” the minister said in a statement.

The Canadian Press first reported last November that government officials had been looking at contracting the international organization to assist on the matter, according to a heavily redacted briefing note obtained under federal access-to-information laws.

The internal document said First Nations were seeking a national strategy when it comes to addressing unmarked graves and officials felt the organization was a trusted voice.

At the time, Kimberly Murray, who is serving as an independent special interlocutor on the issue, said she expressed concerns because it was unclear whether the request for the organization’s help was coming from Indigenous communities.

The former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the residential school system, was appointed to her role in June 2022 and is meant to advise the government on how to protect possible gravesites.

First Nations across Western Canada and Ontario have been using ground-penetrating radar technology to search land near former residential schools for the existence of possible graves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated around 6,000 Indigenous children died while being forced to attend the church-run, federally funded institutions.

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

RELATED: 66 more potential graves identified at former residential school in B.C.’s Cariboo