Statement on the federal government’s decision to appoint an independent official to help identify unmarked graves at sites of former residential schools

The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre welcomes the decision by the federal government to seek an “independent special interlocutor” to inform a proper response to missing children and unmarked graves at former residential school sites. We concur that “a legal framework is needed to preserve and protect the rights, respect and dignity of the children buried in unmarked burials” and assert that such a framework must move forward with urgency and in full partnership with Indigenous Peoples. The Centre awaits the announcement of who the special interlocutor will be.

The discoveries, to date, of more than 1,300 unmarked burials on or near former residential schools by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and Cowessess First Nations, the ʔaq’am community of the Lower Kootenay Band, and the Penelakut Tribe have been a troubling but not surprising eventuality. The testimony of Survivors and their families has already confirmed that thousands of children died or went missing at residential schools. A federal response, including a thorough and transparent investigation that leads to proper redress, reparation and ultimately healing, is long overdue.

In its June 2021 paper “Considering the Legal and Human Rights Framework for Addressing Mass Graves Connected to Indian Residential Schools,” the Centre proposed six preliminary elements as the core of a legal and human rights framework for mass graves in Canada. The first of these was the immediate appointment of a Special Rapporteur who would, in full partnership with Indigenous Peoples, “have the ability to identify, access, and control all records related to the schools.”

“Canada has a serious task ahead to properly investigate and address the missing children and mass graves”, states Centre Academic Director Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-Kwe). “The Interlocutor role may signal an era of greater urgency and accountability for Canada, but only if the focus is on the national and international norms and remedies that must inform the work.”

The Centre stands in support of Indigenous people and communities as this difficult work is undertaken. We encourage Survivors and their families needing support at this time to reach out to the 24-hour National Residential School Crisis Line at: 1-866-925-4419.