Current Problems

Missing Children and Burial Information (71-76)

Trudeau’s government tasked her with seeking justice for Indigenous children in unmarked graves. Now she says it’s stonewalling her

October 2, 2023

A federal government appointee says limits around how she conducts her work are hindering reconciliation — and feeding into a disturbing rise in misinformation about the legacy of residential schools.

kimberly murray
Kimberly Murray speaks after being appointed as independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools, at a news conference in Ottawa on June 8, 2022.Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO

Toronto Star: OTTAWA—The federal government’s point person on seeking justice for Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves says Ottawa’s limits around how she conducts her work are hindering reconciliation — and feeding into a disturbing rise in misinformation about the legacy of residential schools.

“This piecemeal approach that the government takes doesn’t provide for full reparations to communities,” said Kimberly Murray, Ottawa’s special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked burials. “We’re just going to keep having these conversations five, 10, 20 years from now … if we don’t deal with the fact that Indigenous children were taken all over the place and weren’t returned home.”

Murray is more than a year into her two-year mandate, which tasks her with crafting a legal framework that will dictate how Ottawa should handle the treatment of burial sites in a culturally appropriate way. Her position was created after several First Nations announced in 2021 that they had confirmed the discovery of potentially hundreds of unmarked graves at the former sites of the government- and church-run schools. Ground searches have since revealed hundreds more suspected burial sites.

But Murray believes the federal government’s focus on supporting search and commemoration efforts only for children who died at residential schools is at the heart of a “troubling” disconnect between the realities children faced at other institutions and the political will to bring those truths to light.

For one, she says, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNAC) has limited its funding for recovery work to situations where a child died at a school recognized under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

“We know there’s all these other institutions that were not recognized under the settlement agreement — for example, the institutions where Métis people and children were taken to, and the Indian hospitals where kids were transferred from the institutions to these other areas and died there,” Murray said.

It’s hard to determine just how often government representatives — known at the time as “Indian agents” — sent children to institutions like psychiatric hospitals, sanatoriums, reformatories and industrial schools. “This is a thing that I’m learning in this position that I didn’t necessarily recognize when I worked at the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). This is far more common than we had thought,” Murray said.

Worsening the problem are difficulties Murray has faced in trying to access records associated with those institutions, which she considers “extensions of residential schools” because they were often operated by churches or the government.

“CIRNAC hasn’t given departmental researcher status to me so I could go look at their litigation, all their Indian residential school records, and (records for) other institutions,” Murray said.

In an interim report Murray released this summer, she detailed the “maze of various archives and record systems” families must navigate to trace the journeys of their loved ones.

The stories are endless.

Murray told the Star of the time she attempted to locate unmarked graves in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery. She was told the cemetery could not share its burial records, so she was forced to find a store that sold rare books and read about the cemetery’s history on her own.

In another example, she recalled the case of a boy who fell ill while attending a residential school in northern Ontario. The child was transferred to Toronto and was moved between a hospital, a mental health hospital and a facility for children with disabilities. His grave was eventually located at a cemetery with a headstone bearing the wrong name, because residential school staff had changed it.

But when Murray asked Ottawa and Ontario to secure funding to exhume his body to bring it home, she ran into roadblocks because the boy had not died while attending a residential school. “Canada has said they won’t pay. I have an email, because I wrote a letter to Canada and Ontario, advocating for funding, and then Canada’s response is they won’t pay,” Murray said.

Murray said families are being bounced between federal, provincial and territorial governments to get answers, but that the onus should be on Ottawa to provide records because the federal government was responsible for deciding where children went.

The issue reminds her of the story of Jordan River Anderson, a boy with medical needs from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, who died in hospital after federal and provincial governments could not agree on who should pay for his home-based care. The tragedy spurred the creation of Jordan’s Principle, by which helping First Nations children is prioritized over arguing about which level of government should pay for services.

“I get so frustrated,” Murray said.

“I think it should be a Jordan’s Principle approach. Let the federal and provincial governments fight it out amongst themselves. Survivors are dying. Communities shouldn’t have to be caught in this jurisdictional negligence that’s happening.”

CIRNAC is the target of much of Murray’s ire. “They’re just off on their own doing their own thing, acting like the Indian agent always has acted. They know what’s best for everybody,” she said.

According to numbers CIRNAC shared with the Star, it has approved 117 funding requests — representing a total of $160.4 million — for a federal program that helps communities undertake commemoration initiatives and conduct research and fieldwork. The money goes toward funding arrangements with Indigenous governments, band and tribal councils, organizations and survivor groups.

The Star put Murray’s criticisms to Gary Anandasangaree, who became the federal minister for Crown-Indigenous relations in July. Anandasangaree was not available for an interview, and his office did not directly address any of Murray’s concerns in an emailed response.

The pair met for the first time on Wednesday.

“I had a productive first meeting with the special interlocutor. She raised some concerns, and also offered suggestions to improve the work and scope of her mandate,” Anandasangaree said in the written statement.

“Advancing reconciliation is at the heart of everything we do as a government. I look forward to working with the special interlocutor to ensure progress and support for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis as they uncover the truth and work toward healing.”

For her part, Murray said Anandasangaree was “inquisitive” about the concerns she brought to the table and that she left the meeting “hopeful” about future conversations.

But she says the federal government’s stonewalling around funding and records means Ottawa is complicit in allowing false and dangerous narratives about residential schools to flourish.

Her interim report noted that residential school denialism is on the rise due to a “core group of Canadians” who defend the existence of the schools and deny the “physical, sexual, psychological, cultural and spiritual abuses” perpetrated there.

“(The government) is allowing it to increase, right? Sometimes there’ll be some small platitudes where they say something like ‘Oh, that’s unacceptable,’” Murray said. “But what are they doing about it? They’re not doing anything about it. They continue to hide records.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program provides 24-hour crisis support for residential school survivors and their families suffering trauma from past experience and abuse. It can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.l

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel.