An independent special interlocutor will work with Canada’s Indigenous communities on creating a new federal legal framework to ensure the proper treatment and protection of residential school grave sites.
On Wednesday, the federal government named Kimberly Murray, former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as the “Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools.”
Murray will begin her post on June 14 and will work for two years on the file, with her post scheduled to end on June 13, 2024.
Murray will work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments, representative organizations, communities, survivors and families to discuss issues of concern around the identification, preservation, and protection of unmarked graves and burial sites, including the potential repatriation of remains, Ottawa said in a news release.
“The Special Interlocutor will guide this process, facilitate listening and action by engaging in conversations in ways that are culturally informed, trauma-informed, appropriate and respectful, and based on Indigenous customs, decision and consensus-building practices,” the government said.
“Her mandate will also extend to facilitating dialogue with provinces, territories, local communities, as well as other relevant institutions, such as various churches.”
The appointment was welcomed by B.C. First Nation, Tḱemlúps te Secwépemc.
“Canada has an essential role to play in ensuring …. that all our communities can find their lost children, and comfort them and their families,” said Chief Kukpi7 Rosanne Casimir in a statement Tuesday.
“The Special Interlocutor will, we hope, work with all our communities to make this happen” she added.
Canada’s residential school system locked away more than 150,000 Indigenous children, ripping them from their families and culture in an effort to destroy Indigenous identities.
Thousands died from abuse, disease and malnutrition, and countless more were subjected to sickening physical and sexual violence by priests and nuns.
The discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., last year spurred initial calls around the world for justice and transparency. Since then, more apparent graves have been found near former residential school sites elsewhere in Canada.
Ottawa has pledged $10.4 million over two years for Murray’s work, which will be independent and impartial, it stressed.
She will deliver an interim report one year into her post describing her work and progress to date. A final report will be delivered at the end of her second year.
Both reports will be delivered concurrently to the Minister of Justice and to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Survivors, families, leaders and communities and to the public.
“I am committed to supporting the work of Survivors and Indigenous communities to protect, locate, identify, repatriate, and commemorate the children who died while being forced to attend Indian Residential Schools,” Murray said in the news release.
“I pledge to do this work using my heart and my mind in a way that honours the memories of the children who never made it home.”
The interlocutor must help Indigenous communities navigate the complexity of residential school searches, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
“We just need to make sure the interlocutor will open doors for us when doors are not being opened,” he said.
“I’m truly excited for this position because we are challenged at times.… This position is going to be someone who will help us bring forward truth and give clarity to any legalities of what we’re doing.”
The road to justice in every Indigenous community will look different, Murray said.
“We’ll have to pull this all together and see what kind of recommendations we can make, directed not just to the federal government, but to the provincial and territorial governments and see what changes might be necessary in those jurisdictions for justice to truly happen,” she told reporters.
Justice Minister David Lametti was asked about appointing a special prosecutor to investigate crimes committed at residential schools, and said if that’s recommended in Murray’s report, the government will assess it.
“I don’t actually currently have the power to create a special prosecutor,” he said.
“If there’s a suggestion that comes forth that could be enshrined in legislation that gives myself or some other person, if I’m no longer here, the power to do that then we’ll assess that at the time.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.