Less than half of the over $200M requested for burial searches at residential schools funded

The federal government has spent a total of $89.9 million in support to communities and organizations for research, commemoration, and field investigation work. However, it marks less than half of what’s been requested.

84 of 106 applications to federal fund approved to date

A memorial in memory of children who died at residential schools on the steps of city hall in Calgary in June 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

As the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaches, stakeholders say more needs to be done to address barriers communities face in identifying unmarked burials tied to former residential school sites.

The federal government has funded a total of $89.9 million in support to communities and organizations for research, commemoration, and field investigation work.

However, it marks less than half of what's been requested. 

"This is priceless work," said Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta. 

"A child's life, a child's burial place. Trying to find that is priceless. You can't put a dollar amount on that."

Kisha Supernant is the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and an associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Alberta. (Omayra Issa/CBC)

Supernant works directly with Indigenous communities to support and advise on how to approach investigations, and has conducted surveys at eight different school sites using technology to investigate the grounds for potential unmarked graves.

"It's a really big burden on many nations to have to try to carry out the full investigation," said Supernant.

"There's all these sorts of barriers that communities are facing, and I'm just not sure if there's been enough to address those barriers."

The federal government announced the Residential Schools Missing Children Community Support funding in June 2021 to support Indigenous communities to locate missing children at residential schools as identified in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

106 applications received

According to a response to an order paper question last week, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Jaime Battiste said the program has received 106 applications totalling $214,180,918 in requested funding from Indigenous communities and organizations.

To date, 84 applications have been approved for a total of $89,994,897 in funding, while the department is assessing 15 applications.

A total of four requests were denied funding, two were withdrawn, and one was redirected to another federal program for funding.

Niki Ashton is the NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, in northern Manitoba. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The numbers don't add up for New Democratic MP Niki Ashton, who penned a letter to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller this week outlining her concerns.

"We're now on the eve of the second annual National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, and the answer from the government with respect to this specific initiative is just not good enough," said Ashton, who represents the Churchill-Keewatinook Aski riding in Manitoba.

"We need to see much greater resources and to support communities in terms of what they need, for both searching the ground and the records, and healing and mental health supports."

Crown-Indigenous Relations has yet to respond to questions from CBC News.

'It's going to take decades'

The Survivors Secretariat, a non-profit organization searching for unmarked burials of Indigenous children on over 240 hectares of land associated with the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., received $10,259,975 over three years through the program.

A woman standing in front of a podium.
Laura Arndt is the executive lead of the Survivors' Secretariat. (Survivors' Secretariat/Facebook)

Laura Arndt, the secretariat lead, said the organization had requested $10.9 million for initial work in addition to funds from Ontario.

"We know we're going to end up needing in the ballpark of $25 million," said Arndt.

"It's going to take decades to analyze and truly understand the data we're looking for."

The Mohawk Institute operated for 136 years with several sites associated with the school. Arndt said she's concerned about how the program works as grants-based funding for two to three years. She described it as having to "beg" for funding resources.

"Each community has to do it and based on their capacity to do it well, or do it to get a little bit of funding for something that we're trying to address that was caused by the very state we're having to ask for money," she said.

"It's an atrocity that we're having to beg for time-limited funding to undo a history of record destruction."

Supernant has similar concerns. She said she'd prefer to see a government program that provides the necessary funds in an easy and effective manner without time limits or funding caps.

"The only way that we'll know this work is done is when the nations and the communities say it's done," she said.

"I just would really like to see an approach that was more about finding those answers."

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


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.