A Guatemala-based forensic anthropology organization is extending its hand to Indigenous Peoples in Canada looking to potentially recover remains of children on the grounds of former residential schools.
Fredy Peccerelli, a founding member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, has been working for nearly 30 years to bring home bodies of the “disappeared” — Maya civilians who were killed during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996.
He said he’s seen first-hand how the pain caused by the loss of family members and their missing remains can rupture through generations and communities.
“It doesn’t go away,” he said.
Peccerelli said his group’s Indigenous-led excavations identify the remains of as many as 125 people per year, on average, which are returned to families and communities.
More than 8,000 bodies have been recovered in the organization’s exhumations in Guatemala, and nearly half, or 3,800, have been identified.
In Canada, Indigenous Peoples have been grappling with how to bring deceased family members home from the grounds of former residential schools.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, of which more than 60 per cent were run by the Catholic Church.
Survivors of the schools have been speaking out for decades about the possibility of unmarked graves at the sites, prompting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to release a report on missing children and unmarked burials in 2016.
But it wasn’t until 2021, when Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced its finding of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., that the country and the world took notice.
Peccerelli was one of those outside of Canada who watched keenly as the news emerged.
He said his first thought was that First Nations should develop an independent Indigenous-led forensics team that could conduct work similar to his organization’s.
“No one is going to treat (searches) with as much respect and dignity, and for as long as it takes to do it, like First Nations people,” said Peccerelli. “It’s the most dignified way.”
He added that his group has worked with others in Mexico and Rwanda to train people on how to collect DNA, excavate graves and repatriate remains.
It is willing to do the same in Canada, he said.
Peccerelli isn’t the only person to say that Indigenous actors should be at the forefront of searches for children’s remains.
Kimberly Murray, the federally appointed special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites, has cited the Guatemalan organization’s work as an example of how things could unfold in Canada.
A recent report from the Senate’s Indigenous Peoples committee quoted Murray expressing concerns with the federal government’s handling of potential residential school searches.
Earlier this year, the federal government signed a technical arrangement with the International Commission on Missing Persons, an organization based in The Hague that works to find people missing due to armed conflict, human-rights abuses and disasters.
The group was engaged to consult with Indigenous communities about the options they have to identify and repatriate missing children.
But Murray said Ottawa didn’t first consult with Indigenous-led organizations and advisory bodies that have experience working with survivors and missing children, adding she didn’t believe the international group had the “cultural competency” or experience to hold engagement sessions with Indigenous communities in Canada.
She also expressed concerns that the federal government would be too involved in the work, and would retain control over any data the group collected, despite its promise that the work would be conducted independently.
In the meantime, searches have already begun in Canada.
Last month, members of Minegoziibe Anishinabe, a Manitoba-based First Nation located northwest of Winnipeg, began a search with archeologists and scientists from Brandon University to search the grounds of the former Pine Creek Residential School.
Minegoziibe Anishinabe is believed to be one of the first communities in Canada to begin conducting such a search.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2023.
— With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg.
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press