WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Justice Minister David Lametti announced Wednesday the appointment of a special interlocutor to co-ordinate the government's response to the unmarked graves that have been identified at a number of former residential school sites.
Lametti has tapped Kimberly Murray, a Mohawk woman originally from Kanehsatake in Quebec, to lead these efforts for the next two years.
Murray comes to the job with experience with this sort of work because, for the last year, she has been overseeing an investigation into deaths at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford, Ont.
WATCH | Special interlocutor named to oversee unmarked graves at former residential schools
Murray has also served as Ontario's first-ever assistant deputy attorney general for Aboriginal justice. Before that, Murray served as the executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, where she worked to ensure the stories of survivors of the residential school system were heard and remembered.
As interlocutor, Murray's job will be to work with Indigenous communities to draw up some recommendations to strengthen federal laws and practices with regard to unmarked burial sites.
Murray will also engage with First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments, representative organizations, communities, survivors and families on issues like the identification of graves and the potential repatriation of remains.
Honouring memories of 'children who never made it home'
The intention is to bolster efforts to protect and preserve these sites, which are thought to be the resting place of hundreds of Indigenous children who attended church- and state-run institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Murray said she was "honoured" and "humbled" to be appointed to this job, which will see her work with communities to "protect, locate, identify, repatriate and commemorate the children who died while being forced to attend Indian residential schools."
"I pledge to do this work using my heart and my mind in a way that honours the memories of the children who never made it home," she said.
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It's an issue that moved to the forefront of the national agenda last summer after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a radar survey of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School indicated as many as 215 children could be buried on the site.
In June 2021, the Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan also announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves near its former residential school.
Lametti said the identification of unmarked graves has "caused us all to reflect on Canada's history and the truth of this troubling past."
"This work will be an important trust-building exercise that will help communities move forward, find healing for families and survivors, and push us all toward a more just framework for honouring the memory of Indigenous children who never returned home from residential schools," he said.
'Very heavy on the heart'
Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc and Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation were on hand for the announcement Wednesday.
"We are very pleased to learn of the appointment," Casimir said.
"We've taken much responsibility to care for unmarked graves and we've taken steps to find out how many children there were, who they were, the communities they came from, how they died and how they came to be buried here."
She noted that, as so many Indigenous communities are launching similar investigations, it's "vitally important work that's going to take time and resources."
Delorme said validating unmarked graves is a "journey that is very heavy on the heart" but one that "sheds light on children that never made it home."
He said Murray's appointment will ensure the government's attention doesn't wane as communities continue their work to learn more about the unmarked graves that dot the country.
"Some survivors are asking for justice. Some survivors want to make sure something is truly done about this," Delorme said.
"This position of special interlocutor is going to be focused on making sure every door is open when it comes to research, when it comes to documents, when it comes to working with the justice system to see if any justice can truly be served for the wrongs that have been done," Delorme said.
Interlocutor will recommend new federal legal framework
According to a backgrounder supplied to reporters by Lametti's office, Murray will identify "needed measures and recommend a new federal legal framework" that will help "preserve the dignity of burial sites of Indigenous peoples."
The interlocutor will also help determine who is responsible for maintaining the unmarked burial sites, with an eye to respecting the "wishes and traditions of communities and families" associated with these graves.
The interlocutor will also "facilitate dialogue" with the provinces and territories and other relevant institutions, including the churches that administered some of the residential schools before a federal takeover of most sites in the 1960s.
In the last federal budget, the government earmarked $209.8 million over five years to help Indigenous communities document, locate and memorialize burial sites at former residential schools.
The government has also allocated funds to pay for programs that provide essential mental health, culture and emotional services to help communities recover from intergenerational trauma.
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.