The B.C. government says it will provide immediate funding to 21 First Nation communities to help with searches for human remains at former residential schools or hospitals.
Murray Rankin, the minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, says each community can receive up to $475,000 for every site as it carries out searches, planning, technical work and archival research, while also engaging with elders, survivors and other First Nations that have an interest in an area.
There are five residential school sites on Vancouver Island and one Indian hospital site in Nanaimo.
Work to uncover burial sites is already underway on Penelakut Island, the site of the former Kuper Island residential school. And the Ahousaht First Nation is about to start its own search of two sites: the Ahousaht residential school property and Christie residential school near Tofino.
“No amount of dollars can replace a loss of a life, loss of lives, no amount of dollars as hard as we try will replace a culture, a language, someone’s self esteem,” said Ahousaht Chief Greg Louie.
Rankin says no deadline is attached to the grants and the funding is from the $12 million the province announced last month for research at former residential school sites, as well as for mental health and cultural supports for Indigenous communities.
The government also announced the appointment of Charlene Belleau and Lydia Hwitsum as First Nations liaisons to help the communities as the search for remains continues.
Belleau says she wants to find the remains of her great-grandfather, who took his own life while at St. Joseph’s residential school in Williams Lake. Hwitsum is the former chief of Cowichan Tribes.
“The way our governments are working now is being inclusive, not leaving out the First Nations people, this is how we should be working all the time, we shouldn’t have to be a second thought,” said Louie.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced in May that ground-penetrating radar had identified what are believed to be the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves.
Prof. Sarah Beaulieu of the University of the Fraser Valley said radar was used to search an apple orchard at the former Kamloops residential school after a child’s rib bone and a tooth were found. The search in Kamloops has so far covered less than a hectare of the 65-hectare property.
Several First Nations in B.C. and Saskatchewan have said ground-penetrating radar has identified what are believed to be the remains of hundreds of children in unmarked graves on former school grounds.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified up to 6,000 missing children, but anticipated the actual number is greater.
Premier John Horgan and Rankin issued a joint statement last week saying the provincial government is committed to supporting and working with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and other nations in its vital work at all residential school sites.