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Alberta pledges $8M to help First Nations locate and honour graves at residential schools

Click to play video: 'Alberta government announces $8M grant to fund grave site searches at residential school sites' Alberta government announces $8M grant to fund grave site searches at residential school sites
Premier Jason Kenney speaks of the dark history of Canada's residential schools while announcing an $8-million grant program to fund research into unmarked burial sites, lost cemeteries and undocumented deaths, as well as placement of memorials and commemoration events. Kenney said Alberta had the most residential schools of any province and said most likely have graves close to them. – Jun 23, 2021

Alberta First Nations and Metis settlements across the province will soon be able to apply for provincial funding to find and honour those children who didn’t come home from residential schools.

The Alberta Residential Schools Community Research Grant will total $8 million and will allow Indigenous communities across the province to qualify for up to $150,000 worth of funding.

“In this country, we’ve skirted the truth, even though residential survivors and elders have been telling us for years that many children didn’t find their way home,” Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson said Wednesday morning.

“We have the moral obligation to find them,” Premier Jason Kenney said.

Read more: ‘They were monsters that did this’: Kamloops residential school survivor speaks out

Funding will go to Indigenous organizations who will decide how best to do the research.

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“We understand that in some cases there are members of impacted communities who may not want to disturb these grave sites for spiritual reasons. Instead they may want to erect permanent commemoration, or some may want to do full archeological research that would require cooperation with technical experts and advanced scientific equipment,” Kenney said.

“Whatever choices they make, we will be there to support them with this $8 million fund.”

Click to play video: 'More kids died at residential schools than among the general population: Alberta premier' More kids died at residential schools than among the general population: Alberta premier
More kids died at residential schools than among the general population: Alberta premier – Jun 23, 2021

Enoch Cree Nation Chief Billy Morin said it’s too soon to know whether the $150,000 will be sufficient to complete the work, but pointed to the flexibility of the program that will allow communities to take on different and customized work.

Listen: The graves provide answers about the lost Indigenous children

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Read more: ‘We were always hungry’: Survivors recount life in Canadian residential schools

Buffalo Lake Metis Chairman Stanley Delorme called the money a start to get the work going.

“The funding that’s been announced today would most likely be the start of something that we need to do to reveal the truth as well as give us a start – not exactly a head start, but at least some of the funding — so that we can do some of the administrative and technical work to explore and identify what we’re looking at.”

Click to play video: '$8M Alberta residential school program is a good start: First Nation leaders' $8M Alberta residential school program is a good start: First Nation leaders
$8M Alberta residential school program is a good start: First Nation leaders – Jun 23, 2021

The fund will also be available to communities to record histories and knowledge of elders, for engagement to determine how communities wish to proceed with a burial site, use of ground-penetrating radar and other technologies to explore potential unmarked burial sites and partnering with experts experienced in locating human burials and maintenance and commemorative work.

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“The trauma for many families has become intergenerational and we hope that this action will be one small evidence of the desire of Albertans to pursue the path of reconciliation and to honour those children whose lives were lost,” Kenney said.

Morin was on hand for the announcement and described his morning sitting in ceremony with other members of his community, praying ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.

Click to play video: 'Enoch Cree Chief calls Alberta government grant a great step in reconciliation efforts' Enoch Cree Chief calls Alberta government grant a great step in reconciliation efforts
Enoch Cree Chief calls Alberta government grant a great step in reconciliation efforts – Jun 23, 2021

Morin described watching two young boys, one of whom had never sat in ceremony before, and talked about the pride the boys had in their community and the ceremony.

“I didn’t get to grow up like this. This opportunity wasn’t afforded to me like how it is today. And it certainly wasn’t afforded to their ancestors who went to residential school,” he said.

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Read more: ‘The children were dehumanized’: Former caretakers at B.C. residential school share their story

To apply for the funding, First Nations and Metis communities will write proposals on how they would like to research and identify any unmarked graves. Along with federal funding, Wilson said it’s likely communities will have almost the entire cost of the project covered.

The application process is now open on the government’s website and applications can be made until Jan. 15, 2022.

“With this announcement today, the story never ends, it keeps going,” Morin said. “Those open wounds are very much open at this time with
Kamloops and things that are going on around the country right now.”

At the end of May, the remains of 215 children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since then, other searches have been conducted across the country and more than 500 children have been found.

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Morin said the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta has already reached out to help with work the Enoch Cree Nation wants to do.

“We have capacity around remote sensing and historical research related to residential schools, as well as training for communities,” director Kisha Supernant said.

Read more: Williams Lake First Nation to search residential school site with ground-penetrating radar

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement identified 139 residential schools across the country. Of those, 25 were in Alberta – the most of any province.

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