Backgrounder: Special Interlocutor on Indian Residential Schools (IRS) Unmarked Burial Sites


The identification of unmarked and undocumented graves and burial sites at residential schools has brought to public consciousness the depth of pain and sense of injustice felt by Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Government recognizes that actions are needed to preserve and protect the rights and dignity of children who never made it home.

Role and mandate of the Special Interlocutor

The Minister of Justice has announced the Government of Canada’s intention to appoint a Special Interlocutor to be wholly dedicated and work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples to make recommendations for changes to strengthen federal laws and practices with regard to unmarked burial sites, to protect and preserve these sites. A candidate will be selected following discussions with Indigenous leaders and communities. This position is being created following the Minister of Justice and Attorney General’s engagements with Indigenous leaders across the country, in which the importance of an Indigenous-led response was reiterated. It is important that government work collaboratively with Indigenous leadership to ensure that their views, perspectives and concerns inform the way in which the responsibilities and functions of the Special Interlocutor will be carried out.

The Special Interlocutor will engage with Indigenous communities and leaders on the Government’s approach to unmarked and undocumented graves and burial sites. They will work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples to review federal laws, regulations, tools and practices that currently apply to protect unmarked graves and burial sites at residential schools and ensure a holistic review. Their mandate will also enable discussions with provinces, territories and local communities, as well ensuring other relevant institutions such as churches are engaged.

The Special Interlocutor’s mandate will evolve as discussions with Indigenous communities and leaders take place in the coming weeks. For now, it is expected that the Special Interlocutor will:

  1. Identify needed measures and recommend a new federal legal framework that respects and preserves the dignity of burial sites of Indigenous peoples, in line with the wishes and traditions of communities and families. This work will apply Indigenous legal orders, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, and other international norms and instruments. Recommendations should identify core elements of a new framework that:
    • preserves the dignity of Indigenous children and communities; and,
    • sets out responsibilities for unmarked burial sites.
  2. Facilitate dialogue with provinces and territories for matters arising within their jurisdiction and with other relevant institutions, including churches.
  3. Establish a relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada as it relates to unmarked burial sites that:
    • facilitates communications between Indigenous peoples and the Government;
    • is based on developing and strengthening trust;
    • uses engagement processes that are culturally-appropriate; and,
    • can serve as a model for future initiatives or lead to recommendations for a new approach to engagement on issues of common concern to the Government and Indigenous peoples.

The Special Interlocutor will facilitate communication between the federal government and Indigenous peoples and communities, as they jointly navigate the existing legal system and identify the appropriate path forward in a way that is survivor-centric and responsive.

The Special Interlocutor will work to establish a relation of trust and respect between the Government and Indigenous peoples. They will create a process for the Government and Indigenous peoples to openly engage, communicate and work together on legal issues of common concern.

Information collected by the Special Interlocutor will help to ensure that Canada’s laws respect and protect unmarked graves and burials sites, and that the Government better understands the needs of Indigenous peoples as we walk the path of healing and reconciliation.

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