A Manitoba First Nation and an advocacy group are hosting a conference in Winnipeg this week to discuss the need for national legislation that would protect Indigenous ancestral remains and belongings in Canada.

The Protecting our Ancestors conference is hosted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) — an advocacy organization that represents dozens of First Nations in northern Manitoba — in partnership with Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba.

The three-day gathering that began Tuesday calls for legislation similar to The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a U.S. law passed in 1990 that requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Indigenous items and human remains to their communities.

“Why we don’t have that law in Canada is simply unacceptable,” MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee told reporters at the conference Tuesday.

Both MKO and Sioux Valley have repeatedly asked the provincial government in recent years for the Brandon Indian Residential School children’s cemetery, located on a private campground near Brandon, Man., to be designated a provincial heritage site under the Heritage Resources Act.

Settee says Canada currently has no national legislation that specifically addresses how to deal with burial sites of historical Indigenous remains.

“That is why we’re advocating very strongly that we have a system in place — and for laws to be developed — that protect the sites of our ancestors, especially near the Indian residential schools,” he said.

Settee says private properties that hold historical Indigenous remains need immediate protection, adding that the power to decide what to do with them should be given to First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

“Eventually, the governments will have to be able to provide a mechanism where we can have access to those sites and those private lands, because ultimately it’s the ancestral remains of our people. It should be turned over to the First Nations.”

‘We need to find a better way’

The conference was also held in collaboration with Canada’s Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor — which will make recommendations for a new legal framework to protect burial grounds of children who disappeared — and the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation.

Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools, says the conference is an opportunity for Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers and leaders to share what they think should be included in the legislation.

“What we have in Canada is a number of provincial [and] territorial laws that weren’t created for the idea of protecting the burial grounds of ancestors of Indigenous people, of children that were buried on Indian residential school grounds,” she told reporters at the conference.

“The difficulty we have is that the provincial and territorial laws don’t speak to the federal laws that we don’t have.”

A woman with long, light-coloured hair and black/red beaded earrings is pictured looking at someone off-camera.
Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools, says the creation of a new national legal framework will take time and also requires proper consultation with Indigenous communities. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

There are other institutions where Indigenous children were historically taken and did not return, including hospitals, sanitariums and reformatories, said Murray. She’s seen cases where the children were either buried near those places or in mass graves at official cemeteries.

There are no laws that give Indigenous communities access to lands where historical Indigenous remains are found, particularly on privately owned land, according to Murray.

“We know that there are communities that want to access lands that are privately owned, and their landowners are not granting access,” she said.

“We need to find a better way.”

Indigenous consultation, oversight needed

Murray says the creation of a new national legal framework will take time and also requires proper consultation with Indigenous communities.

“We can’t leave it in the hands of … the government of Canada to create that law. There has to be a full consultation on what the law should look like and who should have oversight,” she said.

“It’s important that we have strong enforcement mechanisms, and that Indigenous people have oversight to these legislations and any new legislation that we might create on a national scale.”

The discussion is personal for Jacquie Bouvier, who attended the Beauval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan for six years as a child.

Last August, English River First Nation said ground-penetrating radar found what it says are 93 unmarked graves, including 79 children and 14 infants, near the former school’s cemetery so far.

“I believe that two of them are my sisters,” Bouvier told reporters at the conference.

“We are going there in the spring [to] do our own GPR work — ground-penetrating radar. We think we know where they’re buried. They passed away in the 1920s.”

A woman with short brown hair and brown glasses is pictured smiling to the camera.
Jacquie Bouvier says finding the remains of her sisters near the former Beauval Indian Residential School in northeastern Saskatchewan will give her closure. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Bouvier is in favour of the national legislation being proposed at the conference. She says finding the remains of her sisters will give her closure.

“That was my mother’s dying wish, was to find my baby sisters.”

Canada needs legislation to protect historical Indigenous burial sites: Winnipeg conference

A Manitoba First Nation and an advocacy group are hosting a conference in Winnipeg this week to discuss the need for national legislation that would protect Indigenous ancestral remains and belongings in Canada.



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