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

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Just months into her tenure, the Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves Associated with Residential Schools says major concerns have been raised by residential school survivors, families and communities about access to records, land and financing.

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 a Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanesatake, Que.

“It’s what everyone has been saying for the last year about the barriers and concerns that everyone faces. But… some of the things that communities are looking into are pretty shocking.”

Murray was appointed by the federal government in June with a two-year term to provide recommendations on a federal legal framework for the treatment and protection of former residential school children’s burial sites.

Since her tenure began, she has organized a national gathering that drew more than 300 attendees to Edmonton in September and has met with various communities that have embarked on their own quests.

Murray said that through these conversations, it is clear that a major barrier is accessing records from institutions such as Library and Archives Canada, the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), and church bodies.

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

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

Murray said more transparency and information is needed on how to access records in a timely manner.

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

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

Raymond Frogner, chief archives officer at the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, reviews some of the early 20th century photos sent by priests from various residential schools to the Oblates. (Submitted by Raymond Frogner)

Delays are something Raymond Frogner, NCTR’s chief archivist, knows all too well. He said that after the discoveries of unmarked graves at the former residential school sites last year, the center has been inundated with applications.

There is currently a backlog of 450 queries for individual survivor record sets, and they are also working with more than 35 communities across the country who are conducting investigations of unmarked burials.

“We know for sure that number will at least double in the next year,” Frogner said.

“We have 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 registrations to answer inquiries from across the country.”

Insufficient financing, access to land, justice

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

The international criminal court cannot hear matters related to deaths associated with residential schools that occurred before the court was created.

“In the future, I will have some round tables and bring together international experts on other possibilities that might exist,” Murray said.

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

“We are seeing communities hiring attorneys to deal with these situations,” Murray said.

That raises another concern, as there are restrictions on what federal funds 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 reviews report

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

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

Justice Minister David Lametti takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in June. Lametti says that he is reviewing the progress report. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

He said they have had “frank and productive” discussions with indigenous leaders 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 criminal law,” he said.

engagement plan

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

Meetings are also planned in Vancouver in January on indigenous data sovereignty and in Toronto in March on upholding indigenous law.

This empty little chair was placed in an Edmonton hotel conference room at a national gathering in September, to represent the spirits of children who never came home from Canada’s residential school system. (Ka’nhehsí:io Venado/CBC)

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

“[Survivors] They are starting to talk to each other and to their children and grandchildren about what happened to them. All of that is really important for healing.”

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