A group dedicated to supporting Indigenous communities as they look for children who went missing at residential schools says it will not participate in an engagement process on DNA collection to identify unmarked graves at the former school sites.
In a statement released Monday, the National Advisory Committee on Residential Schools Missing Children and Unmarked Burials said it is worried by the federal government's decision to hire an organization based in the Netherlands to do the work — and the decision happened without consultation.
"We remain deeply concerned that such an important and sensitive process has been entrusted to a non-Indigenous organization with no prior history of working with residential school survivors," the statement read.
The national advisory committee is an independent body working under the guidance of a Circle of Survivors. It is chaired by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and co-administered by the NCTR and the federal department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
Committee member Harley Crowshoe, a Blackfoot elder from the Piikani Nation in southern Alberta, said the federal government failed to consult with the group before hiring the Netherlands-based organization.
"If it's not Indigenous-led, how do you feel the impact of our families being at residential school and experiencing the pain and the abuse?" Crowshoe said.
The federal government contracted the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to do outreach and engagement with Indigenous communities about identification and repatriation of remains from unmarked graves at former residential schools, according to a government news release from February.
The ICMP will receive roughly $2 million to carry out the work. Communities do not have to work with the ICMP, the February news release said.
In an email to CBC News on Tuesday, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said it respected the position of the advisory committee.
"The department also respects and supports the decision of Indigenous communities who have expressed a desire to enlist the expertise of the International Commission on Missing Persons and those Indigenous communities who will begin engaging with them," the statement said.
It said the ICMP is the largest organization globally with an exclusive focus on missing persons and it has worked with Indigenous communities in many countries in the past — including work searching for missing people and developing DNA strategies.
Process 'must be Indigenous-led and survivor-led,' says committee
The special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked burials at residential schools and the NCTR have also expressed concerns with the contract.
The February news release announcing the contract said "local Indigenous facilitators will lead every step of the process" as the ICMP works with interested communities.
The statement from the national advisory committee said "a federal engagement process aimed at developing a common national strategy on DNA, identification, and repatriation for residential schools missing children must do more than simply employ Indigenous staff: it must be Indigenous-led and survivor-led to ensure that no further harm is done."
"We need to listen to the circle of survivors because their wisdom is sacred," Crowshoe said.
The advisory committee includes experts in archival research, ground searches, forensic police investigations and trauma, which Crowshoe said leaves them "best-positioned" to support survivors and communities through the process of repatriating remains.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.