Kimberly Murray oversaw a countrywide gathering in Edmonton last week to confront unmarked burials at former residential schools, the first such meeting since her two-year mandate as independent special interlocutor began.
“I think the main goal of this first gathering was to bring together the communities that are currently doing the searches and research around the records,” said Murray, the Kanehsata’kehró:non who served as executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
A slew of gatherings over her mandate will seek to connect communities striving to address the complex problem of how to move forward with the difficult emotional and technical work ahead.
Murray noted about 88 communities have received funding to do the work of recovery.
“We really wanted to bring them all together so they could meet each other, exchange information about the process that they’re putting in place, and to really learn from each other,” she said.
“We can see that some (communities) are far along in the research of records, whereas others are quite far along in the actual ground search with the technology,” she said. “Mostly all of them are now facing the reality that this is going to take much longer than they originally anticipated.”
Murray’s office is working on compiling recommendations for a new legal framework that will make records and land more accessible to Indigenous communities seeking to recover the victims of residential schools and other sites of unmarked burials.
“It has to be very site-specific, I would say,” Murray said. “That’s a challenge. How do you develop something nationally that’s site-specific, that will help all communities and the work they’re doing in the way that they want?”
While the purpose of this gathering was largely introductory, subsequent conferences will focus on specific topics, such as community wellbeing in the face of trauma and Indigenous data sovereignty.
According to Murray, access to records held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) has not meaningfully improved over the course of 2022.
“From what I’m hearing from communities, it seems to be one of the number one issues that communities have raised with me - that they don’t have their memorandum of agreement with the National Centre, that they can’t have access, or they only have limited access,” she said.
This is among the problems her office is looking to address through legal recommendations.
In addition to communities, survivors, and a limited number of representatives of the federal government and the church, the conference included members of the National Advisory Committee on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, who bring a range of expertise to the table.
“The scope is enormous,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non forensic pathologist Kona Williams, one of the committee members who attended.
“I think it was a lot to take in for a lot of people, and then you kind of couple that with sort of the heaviness and the sadness and the anger and the frustration,” Williams said.
“It was very humbling,” she said. “I was lucky enough to spend some time with elders and knowledge-keepers and just listen to them. That’s hard, especially when it comes to residential schools.”
She said her expertise - examining the dead and trying to determine the cause of their death - is one small piece of the breadth of experience that communities need to confront unmarked burials.
She cited those well-versed in mental health, identification, genetics, the legal system, and supports for survivors as some of the experts who must be involved.
“This is going to take years and years,” Williams said. “It could take months to excavate one site with relatively few people. We’re talking (about) 140 residential schools that are on the list. There are many more sites - the Indian hospitals, the day schools.”
While she estimated the work could take a decade or more, she believes more answers are certain to come.
“Things will progress,” she said. “We will learn more, and that’s going to be a reckoning for this country.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door