Ontario First Nation looks to put 'horsepower' behind residential school investigations

A northern Ontario Cree community on Tuesday announced a First Nations-led business partnership aimed at helping communities put some investigative “horsepower” behind their searches for unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

Missanabie Cree First Nation announces partnership during unmarked graves gathering in Winnipeg

Members of the Missanabie-led partnership stand with former member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, centre, and special interlocutor on unmarked graves Kimberly Murray, third from the right, in Winnipeg. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

A northern Ontario Cree community on Tuesday announced a First Nations-led business partnership aimed at helping communities put investigative "horsepower" behind their searches for unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

Missanabie Cree First Nation, situated on Treaty 9 territory north of Lake Superior, said its company ISN Maskwa teamed up with Winnipeg-based Narratives Inc. to offer culturally competent mapping, investigative and research services for survivors and communities who want to bring their children home.

"This will ensure that our missing children and their spirits will be treated with the utmost respect, honesty and dignity," said Missanabie Coun. Les Nolan at a news conference in Winnipeg, where a national gathering on unmarked graves is scheduled to conclude on Wednesday.

"Our leading team of experienced investigators have decades of knowledge and skills stemming from successful careers investigating homicides, sexual assaults and other violent offences both inside and outside Indigenous communities," he said.

Community members, joined by Six Nations Police, conduct a search for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar on grounds associated with the former Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, Ont., last year. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

Missanabie founded the Sault Ste. Marie-based company in 2020. Nolan said the First Nations-owned firm can help communities pursue the truth on the technical side while also minding survivor and community trauma.

Both his grandparents attended residential school but vowed never to send their descendants to the same institutions, Nolan said. He recalled seeing the train roll into their community, knowing its occupants had come to steal children away.

"We could see them coming down to the house," he said.

"When my grandparents had time, they'd either put us up in the attic and hide us, or, if we didn't have time, they'd put us back in the bush and we'd sit there until the next train came for them to leave."

Security firm backs initiative

He was joined by David Perry, a former homicide investigator and founder and CEO of Investigative Solutions Network Inc., who said his firm, one of North America's leading private security services, backs the initiative. 

"We have the horsepower — we are sort of the horsepower, if you will, and the engine behind the investigative piece. We have former police officers from virtually every area you can imagine in the investigative world," Perry said.

He said the locating of suspected unmarked graves last year moved him to support the work. He vowed to take direction from communities to bring forensic techniques to bear to try and hold perpetrators to account.

"It'll always be a community-led investigation with very precise directions and an adherence to those directions by our team who are conducting the investigation," he said.

"It's in my heart and soul — if we're chosen to help communities — to bring their children home, to understand what happened and, if necessary, to hold people accountable for what happened to your children."

The other partner, Narratives Inc., offers services like mapping, territorial planning and research and can help communities negotiate for access to historical records that prove difficult to obtain, its founder Somia Sadiq told the news conference.

"We've heard time and time again from survivors that they want answers, and the answers are very difficult to find. We're just scratching the surface here," Sadiq said.

"They take a lot of energy. They take a lot of resources." 

Interlocutor work continues

The Canadian government estimates about 150,000 Indigenous children were forced into its federally funded, church-run residential school system that operated countrywide for more than a century.

Survivors recounted malnutrition, disease, death and physical, mental and sexual abuse during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which concluded in 2015 that the schools formed a core element of Canada's policy of cultural genocide.

In May 2021, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced ground-penetrating radar had located more than 200 suspected unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in south-central British Columbia, prompting many communities to launch similar investigations.

A month later, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced as many as 751 potential unmarked graves were located near the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. Not all graves were believed to contain remains of school pupils.

Kimberly Murray speaks after being appointed as Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, at a news conference in Ottawa in June. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A year later, the federal Justice Department appointed Kimberly Murray as special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves, an office established following demands for a special prosecutor to probe alleged crimes at the institutions.

Murray is mandated not to interfere with criminal investigations, prosecutions or civil lawsuits and was not granted the power to compel production of documents or information. 

Her two-year mandate requires her to map out a new federal framework to ensure the appropriate treatment of these sites. Her office is slated to table a final report with recommendations in June 2024.

She released an interim report on Nov. 10 outlining major concerns expressed by survivors, families and communities. These included challenges accessing records, land and funding to conduct searches.

Murray is hosting the gathering in Winnipeg as part of her mandate and attended the news conference Tuesday to witness the announcement.

The federal government has pledged $320 million for community based programs, including grounds searches, aimed at helping Indigenous communities heal from residential schools.

CBC News reported $89.9 million of that money was funded as of Sept. 29, though more than $200 million had been requested.

Helping communities access money quickly is one of many challenges the partnership can help with, the news conference heard.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

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

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at


Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.