The head of an international organization that specializes in missing persons says she is confident it can provide valuable assistance to Indigenous communities interested in searching for unmarked graves.
“We work extremely closely with communities, especially survivors, of missing person cases to build their understanding of the process,” Kathryne Bomberger, the director-general of the Netherlands-based International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), said.
“This will be very important with Indigenous communities in Canada – to understand what the options are. But I think we believe very firmly that the families of the missing have rights. They have rights to justice, to the truth and proper reparations.”
The organization has signed a $2 million technical agreement with the Trudeau government to solicit information and provide expertise to Indigenous communities searching for unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools.
ICMP’s work will include a roundtable in Ottawa, a town hall meeting and 35 community engagement sessions.
Bomberger said her organization can provide expertise on a variety of levels – including exhumation of human remains and DNA analysis – depending on how an individual community wants to proceed.
Winnipeg journalist and former politician, Sheila North has signed on with ICMP to help facilitate the community engagement sessions and said she is anxious to get to work.
“It’s very important work,” North said. “I come from a family of survivors and I know the importance of doing this for our communities and our families. This is a form of justice for me. I worked on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls’ cases and issues for many years and missing children at residential schools takes on another form of this sad reality.”
However, Crown-Indigenous Relations’ decision to hire ICMP has not come without controversy.
Both the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Special Interlocutor on Missing Children and Unmarked Graves Kimberly Murray have voiced displeasure at not being consulted on the decision.
Earlier this week, Murray told APTN’s Nation to Nation she still has a lot of questions about ICMP and the agreement it has signed with the federal government.
“When we look at the agreement, it’s completely led by Canada, by CIRNAC (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada),” she said.
“Canada tells the ICMP who they are to engage with. Canada has the right to attend every single meeting that the ICMP holds. All the reporting of any engagement sessions goes directly to Canada – not to the survivors, not to the communities. There’s no parallel reporting out to communities and leadership.”
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, the chair of the governing circle for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, added she is skeptical about the government’s reasons for hiring ICMP.
“I just think they’re trying to cover their butts really,” she said “I think they’re trying to say, ‘Well you know, this is really important.’ This is not an Indigenous issue. This is about the history of this country, since its inception, as a colonial body.”
Bomberger said she is aware of some of the criticisms but is hopeful this will not affect ICMP’s work going forward.
“I hope it doesn’t impact (it) because working with the interlocutor and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is hugely important. We need to be partners in this and that’s what we hope to be because I hope this is not a controversial issue.”
The current technical agreement says ICMP will submit a final report to the government by June 15 but Bomberger said this deadline has been extended and the report will likely be filed sometime in September.