British Columbia

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc leaders say some companies taking advantage of those searching for missing loved ones

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc leaders say Indigenous people across Canada have been inundated with ground penetrating radar specialist requests to survey former residential schools grounds and worry that some may be taken advantage of.

Indigenous people inundated with company offers looking for business to survey potential graves

Tk'emlups te Secwepemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir co-hosted a webinar on ground penetrating radar and other remote sensing technologies, amid concerns from Indigenous people flooded with requests from companies offering the service. (Simpcw First Nation)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc leaders say Indigenous people across Canada are being inundated with ground-penetrating radar specialist offers to survey former residential schools grounds, and worry some may be taken advantage of.

"Not all opportunities are created equally," said Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir during a webinar — called Best Practices in Remote Sensing and Grave Detection — for Indigenous people to learn more about remote sensing technologies.

The event, put on by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, in partnership with the Canadian Archeological Association and the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology, outlined how ground penetrating radar (GPR) and other remote sensing technologies work, their cost and ways Indigenous people can use them to find potential grave sites.

Earlier this month, Kukpi7 Casimir, along with GPR specialist Dr. Sarah Beaulieu, shared a report outlining findings of about 200 "targets of interest" that may be children buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The number may be higher following further surveying and forensic work including excavation.

One of the speakers at the webinar, Dr. Kisha Supernant, said every Indigenous community she has spoken to has been approached by multiple companies offering all kinds of services, including ground-penetrating radar.

"One chief showed me the large stack of unsolicited quotes their office had received recently," said Supernant who is the the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and who specializes in community-engaged Indigenous archeology.But Supernant noted that most of those companies do not know how to use the equipment to find unmarked graves, so there is a concern the communities involved will receive inaccurate results.

She said one Indigenous community member said a GPR company told them it could find the outline of bones in a grave without digging.

"That was a huge red flag for us," Supernant said.

Indigenous archaeologist Kisha Supernant says some ground penetrating radar companies are taking advantage of First Nations people who want to find their missing loved ones who may be buried near former residential schools. (Submitted by Kisha Supernant)

'There's always a price tag'

Ground-penetrating radar is much like a medical ultrasound, but uses high-frequency radio waves that penetrate into the ground to form an image of what may be below. But bones or other remains do not show up on the machine's view finder. Instead, what GPR specialists are looking for is what could be grave shafts.

Steve Sxwithul'txw, a survivor of the Kuper Island Indian Residential School who is from the Penelakut Tribe said he has received about 10 calls from companies offering services to use GPR near former residential schools. 

"I have to admit, it didn't feel as sincere as I would have hoped," Sxwithul'txw, said.

"Obviously, there's always a price tag," he said, adding that GPR technology is a specialized area scientifically and that there needs to be knowledge of how the technology and experts work.

Steve Sxwithul'txw sits on the stairs at the site of the former Kuper Island Residential School where he was sent when he was five. A total of 121 Kuper Island students were listed among the 2,800 names released by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation of students who died at the schools (Submitted by Steve Sxwithul'txw)

During the webinar, archeologist Dr. Sarah Beaulieu said while other systems like aerial based remote sensing and multispectral sensing are useful, ground penetrating radar is a gold standard of practice when it comes to detecting unmarked graves and burial sites on the grounds of former residential schools.

In her presentation, Dr. Lisa Hodgetts, who is part of the Canadian Archeology Association's unmarked graves working group said, in tandem with these technologies, there must be other efforts to help locate missing children.

'Give children the dignity they deserve'

Hodgetts called on institutions who have residential school records to release them immediately.

She also said mapping sites around former schools is particularly important in cases where schools were built and rebuilt over time. 

"It is important to narrow the scope and focus on more specific areas where ground-penetrating radar can be done, " Hodgetts added.

She and others reiterated that the science follows the evidence of survivor oral tellings that they dug graves for other children —  testimony documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"We need to give the children the dignity they never had, " Casimir  said during the presentation. 

Sxwithul'txw said in order to provide justice for those who made it home, Indigenous people need to know how GPR works and learn how to sniff out the companies that are not the best for the community.

"I'm trying to investigate and find out what is the best machine, what's the best dollar amount we need to spend, and do we need to go beyond machines," he said. 

Through a GoFundMe campaign Sxwithul'txw and others have raised more than $150,000 to help Indigenous communities find potential gravesites near former Indian residential schools on Vancouver Island

This week, the B.C. government announced it will provide funding to 21 First Nations communities to help with searches for remains at former residential schools or hospitals. 

More areas to survey, including a garbage dump

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc leaders said one of the next steps is to look at excavating the area, keeping cultural and spiritual protocols in mind.

Another speaker, Ted Gottfriedson who is the department manager at Tk'emlups te Secwepemc, said there are still more grounds to survey on his people's lands.

Ted Gottfriedson of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc band said more work needs to be done to survey grounds that could be gravesites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

"It is the survivors who tell us where to search," he said. "And our next target should be the old dumpsite of the residential school and the horrible stories of children being thrown in the garbage dump." 

He said his community used funding from a Pathways to Healing grant from the federal government to survey the Secwepemc Museum & Heritage Park that was once an apple orchard near the former Kamloops Indian Residential school.

Survivors have told stories of being woken up in the middle of the night to dig holes in the area.


Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.



Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.