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Dowsing for Dollars: Is the International Commission on Missing Persons burying its brand in Canada’s hoax of the century?

Dowsing For Dollars: Is the International Commission on Missing Persons burying its brand in Canada’s hoax of the century?

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ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger (left) and Sheila North, ICMP Director Canada Program

On February 17, 2023 then Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), Marc Miller, announced that his department had signed a $2M technical agreement with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to “conduct a cross-country outreach and engagement campaign with Indigenous communities that wish to explore options for the identification and repatriation of human remains from unmarked burial sites associated with former residential schools.” 

Kathryne Bomberger, ICMP’s Director-General, remarked at the time: “The families of the missing are central to addressing the issue of missing children and unmarked burials. Their needs, knowledge and views must lead the way. We look forward to working with all Indigenous communities across Canada to learn and to explore options for a strategy to address the diversity of perspectives surrounding possible identification and repatriation processes.” 

Since May 27, 2021 when it was announced that ‘215 children remains had been found‘ in an old apple orchard near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (IRS), the claim of missing children in unmarked burials has been haunting Canada. In July 2021, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed a resolution to “formally invite the International Commission on Missing Persons” to support First Nations’ efforts to seek justice through the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.” Declaring that a mass grave had been discovered at Kamloops (which, almost three years later, still hasn’t been excavated), the AFN saw it as evidence of “Crown conduct reflecting a pattern of genocide against Indigenous Peoples that must be thoroughly examined and considered in terms of Canada’s potential breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.” The Kamloops announcement led to a succession of similar ‘discoveries’ at former IRS sites across Canada. A year and a half later, in apparent response to two particular claims at Pine Creek First Nation in Manitoba and Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, Marc Miller contracted the ICMP to work alongside Indigenous communities to locate, exhume and identify human remains. 

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Sign posted at the old apple orchard near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

The ICMP was to act as an advisory service for those communities who wished to enlist their expertise which, in itself, was curiously laconic given the suspicions of foul play. Although Canada is a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which stipulates that no one can be prosecuted for events prior to July 1, 2002, it is still important to determine how these purported missing children died. The fact of unmarked burials, distinguished from unmarked graves, implies wrongful death and an effort to conceal the death. In all cases where First Nations claimed to have discovered unmarked burials, ground penetrating radar (GPR) had been used to determine the possible presence of clandestine burials.

Pine Creek First Nation (Minegoziibe Anishinabe First Nation) evidently influenced Miller’s decision to hire ICMP when it announced in 2021 that “14 anomalies” had been found by GPR in the basement of a church located on the grounds of a former residential school on the reserve. “We have a lot of different stories that people carry from their time attending the school,” said Chief Derek Nepinak. “Some people are certain that there are bodies buried under the church.”

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Chief Derek Nepinak, Pine Creek First Nation (credits: Ian Froese/CBC)

Welcoming the involvement of ICMP, Chief Nepinak said, “We are at a point now where we have community members who are asking us to actually begin exhuming remains and we need help and we need assistance, and best practices might help us move in the right direction.” The RCMP had investigated these claims but found nothing to corroborate them, presumably because they could not determine that anyone was actually missing from the period that the school was in operation. Excavation of the church basement took place in the summer of 2023 and no human remains were found, as the ICMP Canada Program notes in their interim report, They Were Children.

Wishing to not discourage other searches for missing and murdered children, Chief Nepinak said, “The results of our excavation under the church should not be deemed as conclusive of other ongoing searches and efforts to identify (GPR) reflections from other community processes including other initiatives,” (emphasis added: ‘reflections’ denotes something more definite being detected than ‘soil disturbances’ or ‘anomalies’).

The case of suspected missing and murdered children at the former Blue Quills (Sacred Heart) Residential School at Saddle Lake Cree Nation was bolstered by the actual discovery of human remains that were accidentally disinterred during routine grave digging beginning in 2004. Skeletal remains reportedly wrapped in shrouds were periodically exposed by a backhoe operator for years but his alarm wasn’t taken seriously until the federal government announced a large fund in 2021 to assist First Nations in their searches for missing children in unmarked graves and burials. The Acimowin Opaspiw Society (AOS) was formed to deal with the search and handling of these remains at the former Blue Quills school site. With several millions of dollars in funding from the Government of Canada, AOS hired BGC Engineering to organize GPR surveys of what AOS considered (and still does) to be three mass graves. At a a press conference organized by AOS and Saddle Lake Cree Nation, BGC’s  Alastair McClymont presented definitive results of a high-resolution GPR scan of a suspected site that showed no evidence of a mass grave but rather shallow, individual burials which are most likely indicative of contingency burial during a disease outbreak in wintertime. 

The AOS press conference included a brief remark by Dr. Soren Blau, Head of Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology at ICMP, who had been sent photographs of cranial fragments retrieved under obscure circumstances from the Blue Quills site. Dr. Blau stated that the fragments appeared to be that of a young child and that further investigation was necessary. It would be impossible for Dr. Blau to venture any further commentary on the fragments shown in photographs. It is not publicly known what details AOS might have told Dr. Blau about the discovery of the photographed fragments. It is likewise not known if any in situ photographs of any of the disturbed or discovered skeletal remains were ever taken by anyone at Blue Quills; such photos are standard forensic and archaeological practice.

If the ICMP was initially unsure that there was any substance to the issue of missing and murdered children in unmarked graves, by early 2024 it was expressing confidence that there were children missing from residential schools under nefarious circumstances and that this was indeed a genocide. The ICMP’s interim report states: “These children are not statistics: they were people, with real lives, dreams, personalities, and aspirations, who were targeted through a broad program of colonial violence and genocide aimed at destroying Indigenous cultures, communities, Nations – all through the children.” 

The ICMP is stating as fact that there are children missing from the IRS who were killed as part of a general plan of genocide. This is an extraordinary assertion for the ICMP because of the conclusions being made without any of the evidence that the ICMP would typically provide in such cases. The presumption that a genocide had been committed in Canada suggests an ideological predisposition to indicting colonialism and at the very least discloses a partiality unbecoming to the ICMP. 

Many times in the past several years, our colleagues (including the Indian Residential School Research Group) have provided the ICMP with evidence that Indigenous children named on school lists have not disappeared. We have meticulously researched at least 500 names that appear on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Memorial Banner and know exactly what happened to these children. You can see their death records by clicking on Death Records and searching the 40-some schools by name: https://indianresidentialschoolrecords.com

Evidence gleaned from archival records, church codices, and death records reveal when, where, and how each child met their untimely death. Documentation shows that they overwhelmingly died in hospitals or at home mainly of disease or childhood illnesses. A few died of mishaps or accidents such as fires, vehicular tragedies, or through misadventure related to weapons. In many cases, these same records indicate that parents were aware of their child’s death and, in fact, if their child died off-reserve, most had the bodies returned home where they were buried in the community graveyard. All of this has been assiduously recorded and is easily obtainable.

Most children were provided Christian burials since the Indians were introduced to Christianity in the early 1600s when the Jesuits came to our shores. There is nothing sinister about what has transpired in Canada when it comes to Indian children. The children who passed away while attending IRS were lawfully interred and the notion of exhuming them to repatriate them elsewhere according to traditional customs is disgraceful and disrespectful of both the wishes and faith of the deceased and their parents. 

On June 8, 2022, the Department of Justice Canada appointed Kimberly Murray as the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children in Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential Schools. A few weeks after the official announcement of ICMP’s involvement in Canada, Ms. Murray was reporting to the Senate Committee on Indigenous People and stating: “The children aren’t missing; they’re buried in the cemeteries. They’re missing because the families were never told where they’re buried.”

Replete in the ICMP’s interim report is the emphasis on supporting the Indigenous right of self-determination. This strategic political objective accounts for the tactic of presuming the genocide of thousands of Indigenous children. Aboriginal sovereign autonomy is justified by the delegitimization of Canada as a genocidal, colonial project. Although the ICMP is, of course, fully aware of the legal  requirements for presenting forensic evidence in court and the AFN sought their expertise “to hold the Imperial Crown, Government of Canada and the Vatican accountable for their actions and to seek justice for their crimes against humanity,” the ICMP casually states:

The objective of ICMP’s Technical Arrangement is to engage directly with Indigenous communities about options related to the search and recovery of human remains and the identification and repatriation of missing children. This will be done through a community-centered approach that acknowledges the diversity of communities and the fact that concerns and needs of communities may vary.” 

What options are there for presenting forensic evidence in court? The chain of evidence must be demonstrable and if a community can customize the collection of forensic evidence according to whatever they deem culturally appropriate, there is a large potential for rendering any such evidence as inadmissible in a court of law. It is hard to believe, for instance, that Dr. Blau wouldn’t have realized that the photographs sent to her by the AOS meant, in a snapshot, the corruption of evidence.

Bomberger et al probably know full well that the Rome Statute rules out prosecuting anyone for events prior to July 1, 2002 and perhaps they know that “the group of lawyers” mentioned in the AFN resolution were unsuccessful in their attempts to enlist the ICC in prosecuting the Government of Canada and the Vatican for crimes against humanity. Knowing all that would relieve the ICMP of stressing the importance of handling suspected unmarked burial sites and human remains with the scientific rigor and security needed for successful prosecution.

Has the popular goal of promoting Indigenous self-determination and self-government skewed the ICMP’s directorate to the point of not even bothering to determine first of all if there are any children reported as missing from residential schools? The ICMP knows the limitations of GPR and that excavation is always required to confirm GPR. It is hard to imagine that the ICMP does not realize that it has not seen any proof of either missing children or unmarked burials. Identifying who might be buried at what particular plot in an abandoned cemetery is not part of the ICMP’s mission.

Is the ICMP just in it for the money? The Trudeau government has dispersed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for the missing and murdered children mystery with many millions more pending. 

“The ICMP Canada Program recommends that the Government of Canada… Establish continued, sustainable, and adequate funding beyond 2025 for Indigenous communities that wish to retain technical advice or services, or that are leading their own investigations, for current and future work related to the search and recovery of remains, identification, investigation, repatriation, and commemoration of children who died or became missing persons while being forced to attend Indian Residential School.”

No doubt the ICMP is sincere in its support of the Indigenous right to self-determination and self-government and regardless of the outcomes, the ICMP is providing technical assistance to First Nations for the monies they have so far received.  But when the day comes that the claim of missing and murdered Indigenous children in secret graves is fully exposed as false, will the reputation of the ICMP as a credible expert witness be irreparably damaged?

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Statue of Queen Elizabeth II toppled by Every Child Matters protesters on Canada Day, 2021, at the Manitoba Legislature (credits: Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

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