This summer, I had the privilege of completing my human rights internship with the Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential School (OSI). The OSI’s mandate includes examining existing federal, provincial and territorial laws that apply to protect unmarked graves and burial sites connected to former Indian Residential Schools, as well as applicable Indigenous laws and protocols, in order to develop a description of the current legal framework. Additionally, the OSI works collaboratively with First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments, representative organizations, communities, Survivors, and families to identify needed measures and recommend a new federal framework to ensure the respectful and culturally appropriate treatment of unmarked graves and burial sites of children associated with former Indian Residential Schools.
In January 2023, I attended a 3-day National Gathering organized by the OSI, which focused on Affirming Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Community Control over Information and Knowledge, and was attended by participants and speakers from across Turtle Island. This was my first time meeting the OSI’s Legal and Research team and getting a more practical glimpse into the OSI’s important role of bringing First Nations, Inuit and Métis people together to share knowledge and experiences, discuss important issues related to unmarked graves and burial sites connected to former Indian Residential Schools, and work towards systemic change and collective healing.
During this Gathering, barriers related to accessing records that are needed to identify the location of unmarked burials and identities of the missing children were discussed, including time-consuming and complex legal regimes relating to privacy and access laws, and institutional hurdles like having records being sent overseas, or withholding permission to access records. The systemic gatekeeping of this information hinders search and recovery efforts, prevents transparency and accountability, and reinforces colonial power dynamics. At the same time, several Indigenous communities are actively asserting their sovereignty and exercising their right to maintain or take back control of their knowledge and information.
When we think of data, we may think primarily of written records and the ways in which they may be stored and accessed. To end this blog post, I would like to share a quote from Jeff Ward – one of the speakers and the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Animikii – which beautifully unravels this notion and emphasizes the importance of Indigenous Data Sovereignty in the path to decolonization. He said, “…data is held in stories and families and hearts. Data is in the land; it’s in our regalia, it’s in our songs, it’s in our stories, and it’s in our languages.”
For more information about the OSI’s work and the National Gatherings, please visit https://osi-bis.ca/osi-resources/reports/