Costs for gravesite searches go beyond ground penetrating radar: Sask. First Nations

Costs related to searching for unmarked burial sites at residential schools go well beyond simply paying for equipment or finding a team to search with ground penetrating radar.

George Gordon First Nation says first phase of search costed roughly $100K plus volunteer hours

A worker with SNC Lavalin, right, shows community members the ground-penetrating radar equipment being used to search for graves at a cemetery site located behind where the Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School in La Ronge, Sask., once stood, as the community started its search efforts last summer. (Tammy Cook-Searson/Facebook)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

The George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan announced last week it had used ground penetrating radar to identify 14 potential unmarked gravesites at the site of the former Gordon's Indian Residential School. 

During the announcement, leadership and representatives of the First Nation raised the cost of the project as a concern. 

Sarah Longman, chair of the community's cemetery committee — which helped in search efforts — said those costs went beyond just the radar equipment.

"We have to have additional funds to bring in mental health support workers who are on standby outside of our community to help us deal with any kind of impact," she told reporters last week. 

"They had to work with our community members, our cultural, spiritual people….  we've had community as well, so there's a whole bunch of other pieces that are part of this cost."

Sarah Longman, chair of the George Gordon First Nation IRS cemetery committee, told reporters the costs associated with ground penetrating radar searches go beyond just paying for equipment. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Longman estimated the project cost more than $100,000 total. She also noted that many of the people involved in the search efforts worked on a volunteer basis.

The community's chief Byron Bitternose said the announcement was just phase one of what will become a long search. Longman estimated it would take the community 10 years to complete searching.

Federal budget includes funding 

When the federal government unveiled its budget earlier this spring, it included money for First Nation communities to search for potential unmarked graves in Saskatchewan. 

The government's budget said $209.8 million would be dedicated to the searches over the next five years. 

A statement from a Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs spokesperson said of that total, $122 million is to be allocated over the next three-years to the Residential School Missing Children's - Community Support funds.

WATCH | George Gordon First Nation announces first results of ground penetrating radar search:

Sask. First Nation says 14 possible burial sites found at former residential school

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
WARNING: This video contains distressing details | With findings from ground-penetrating radar, George Gordon First Nation announced there are 14 potential unmarked burial sites on the grounds of a former residential school north of Regina. Officials fear more sites could be found once they complete their search — which could take years.

Communities can access money by submitting funding proposals to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

"To date, 15 applications have been received from Saskatchewan communities [or] organizations, and 11 have received financial assistance support," the statement said. 

"Details of Community Support Funding received by specific Indigenous communities will be shared once Indigenous partners are ready to announce."

In Saskatchewan, a few communities have already announced their results and some have acknowledged using federal government funds to support their projects, including the George Gordon First Nation, which used money distributed by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations to support its search.

The ministry spokesperson said $116.8 million, promised through the federal budget in 2019 and in an announcement from Minister Carolyn Bennett last summer, was spent last year to address five Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action related to children who went missing at residential schools. 

A similar approach in La Ronge

Last summer, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band started searching a cemetery that operated in front of the Lac La Ronge Indian Residential School and also acted as a community cemetery.

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson estimated the band was roughly 90 per cent done searching the cemetery. She said spent $100,000 on the search and used funds from the $100 million the federal government made available. 

Cook-Searson said the community won't be releasing the results of the search until the work is complete and that the community may still search areas outside of the cemetery, too. 

She said the community, like George Gordon First Nation, also approached every search with sensitivity in mind, given the impacts she saw in the community last summer when the search started and when results from elsewhere in Canada started being announced.

"It's very sensitive work, it's very sensitive, because you're impacting people," Cook-Searson said. 

"There could be triggers, you could be triggering people, and [you have to] make sure the supports there when the triggers happen." 

Elders, cultural advisors, religious figures and the mayors of La Ronge and Air Ronge took time out of their schedules to attend the events. Cook-Searson said counselling was also available to those who needed it. 

In terms of the federal funding available and proposed in the budget, Cook-Searson said she didn't think there should be a five-year period or time limit attached to the money. 

"When you break it out into the whole country, how much does it work out to in each community?" she asked in an interview on Tuesday.

She did say it is good that the funding is available.

"At least there's a budget set aside and it's something that we can apply to."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering 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.