Ottawa stumbles on road to reconciliation
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Canada, it is often argued, is making meaningful progress on the road to reconciliation. Whether that’s true is the subject of ongoing debate. In every journey, however, the forward-progressive steps are inevitably punctuated with occasional and unfortunate missteps.
Such seems to be the case with the federal government’s recent decision to contract with an international organization to provide expertise and assistance to Indigenous communities dealing with possible gravesites near former residential school sites.
The Liberal government announced last week it has hired the International Commission on Missing Persons, based in The Hague, to provide it with advice regarding the issue of suspected unmarked graves. According to the technical agreement, the organization will conduct a cross-country outreach campaign to connect with Indigenous communities seeking options for identification and repatriation of remains from gravesites identified on or near former school sites.
The organization’s head insists the group will make consultation a priority. “The families are central to addressing the issue of missing children and unmarked burials,” director general Kathryne Bomberger said in a released statement. “Their needs and their knowledge must lead the way.”
While the statement seems intended to signal good intentions on the commission’s part, what’s at issue is the fact another organization closer to home with considerable expertise — the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) — says it “was not consulted in any meaningful way” about the federal government’s contract with the international group, which calls for a final report to be submitted by mid-June.
Such a revelation — that Ottawa would seek outside counsel on the issue of presumed gravesites related to residential schools without seeking domestic input and approval — flies directly in the face of the core principle that the process of reconciliation must be an Indigenous-led effort with residential school survivors playing a central role.
Among the concerns raised by the NCTR’s executive director, Stephanie Scott, are the manner in which the international commission’s work seems to overlap — and therefore possibly undermine — the Indigenous-led national advisory committee whose work on the issue of missing children and unmarked graves is already underway, and the fact the commission’s agreement makes no mention of the special independent interlocuter, Kimberly Murray, appointed by the federal government.
According to a statement from the NCTR, allowing oversights of this nature “implies a purposeful undermining of their work.”
The centre has reportedly raised its concerns with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, whose response to date has been limited to a statement released Monday suggesting the agreement with the international commission is subject to amendments which would be “jointly considered” by Ottawa and the contract holder.
Simply put, that’s not good enough. Mr. Miller owes Indigenous leaders the communities they serve, as well as Canadians in general, a fulsome explanation of the processes involved in the decision to award this $2-million contract to an internationally based non-Indigenous organization.
He should also provide more definitive assurances that control of work on the issue of missing children and presumed unmarked graves remains firmly in the hands of Indigenous leaders and experts. It goes without saying that considerable effort must be directed toward rebuilding the trust that has been eroded by the clumsy handling of this agreement.
The contracted group has done its best to offer promises that signal its intentions related to consultation and the provision of expertise are good.
The manner in which the federal government seems to have engaged the firm, however, serves as a reminder that it’s the road to somewhere other than reconciliation that is proverbially purported to be paved with good intentions.