Adviser on unmarked graves says some landowners are refusing access for searches

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 Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

Some private landowners are refusing access to residential school survivors who are looking to perform ceremony or search their properties for possible unmarked graves, a Senate committee heard Tuesday.

Kimberly Murray, who was appointed by the federal government to provide it with advice on how to handle possible burial sites, told senators about her role and the main concerns she says she has heard from Indigenous communities.

“We need access to land,” said Murray. “This is what keeps me awake many nights, thinking about how some things could escalate.”

She said there is currently no federal law in place to protect suspected gravesites or grant communities access to land that is privately owned but is believed to be home to unmarked graves.

When residential schools were closed, Murray said, the lands they were located on were not turned back over to First Nations or other Indigenous communities — “the rightful landholders,” as Murray put it.

She said some landowners have refused to provide access to their properties “even to do ceremony, let alone to search the grounds.”

Murray added that her office has had to write letters and meet with landowners to try and convince them otherwise.

“We have landowners that have campers on top of the burials of children, known burials,” Murray said. “We don’t have any law to put a stop to this.”

In her testimony, Murray did not elaborate on specifics, but told senators such lands ought to be protected.

She said while provinces have various laws that protect lands for different reasons, these are often not enforced and are unlikely to provide cohesive protection for unmarked graves.

“We have a big gap federally in the legislation.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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