SSHRC awards $1M in funding to aid in searches for lost Indigenous children

The five-year initiative is one of six recipient partnership grants and aims to advance technology and capacity for identifying undocumented graves

Caroline Gault - 26 June 2024

Together with a nationwide team, Dr. Kisha Supernant — director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology (IPIA), chair of the The Canadian Archaeological Association Working Group on Unmarked Graves (CAAWGUG), and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta — has been awarded a $1M grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a project titled, "Bringing the Children Home: Advancing Technology and Capacity for Locating and Commemorating Residential School Burial Landscapes.” 

The five year initiative is one of six partnership grants through the Reconciliation Network in Response to Call to Action 65 (RN CTA-65) and aims to document and improve scientific methods for identifying undocumented graves from Canada's residential schools, a crucial step in the process of truth and reconciliation.

Since the 2021 announcement about the potential unmarked graves of 200 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School sparked national and international outrage, many Indigenous Nations have used technologies like archaeological remote sensing and near-surface geophysics in their searches for lost Indigenous children. However, significant challenges remain: There is a shortage of experts with the necessary experience to conduct these searches using advanced technologies; the technologies used are often borrowed from other fields and require methodological refinement for this specific application; and, while funding, equipment, training, and coordination are lacking, so are ethical, legal, technical and emotional protocols for handling the sensitive nature of the work. 

The current project led by Supernant aims to address these gaps by developing a national network of scholars and Indigenous communities dedicated to increasing capacity and refining technologies for locating and commemorating residential school burial sites. The network builds out of existing relationships established between Supernant, project co-director Andrew Martindale (University of British Columbia), co-applicants Sarah Beaulieu (University of the Fraser Valley), Terence Clark (University of Saskatchewan) and Lisa Hodgetts (Western University), and collaborators Adrian Burke (Université de Montréal), Peter Dawson (University of Calgary) and Edward Eastaugh (Western University). All are members of the CAA Working Group on Unmarked Graves, which recently received a 2024 Governor General’s Innovation Award at Rideau Hall for its innovative work.


The collective diversity of experience includes using various technologies, with specialists in near-surface geophysics, UAV-mounted sensors, terrestrial Lidar, search dogs, and geographic information systems, while every participant has also worked collaboratively with and for Indigenous communities, in some cases for more than two decades in a variety of geographic contexts. 

The project aims to uphold Indigenous data sovereignty and develop appropriate protocols for data collection, access, and sharing, as well as to co-develop training programs with Indigenous Nations to build capacity within communities to undertake this sacred work with appropriate ceremony and respect.

“The new grant falls into the community-led work that IPIA is known for,” explains Supernant, “but I would note that this funding is not designed to make residential schools into research sites. Rather, we are locating non-Indigenous burial places to use to advance research so we can do a better job of serving communities looking for their children.”

From developing targeted guidance through documents, video instruction, and webinars to the creation of detailed best practices, knowledge mobilization to Indigenous communities is at the core of the project and is the highest priority. Consent for other knowledge mobilization — such as academic presentations or publications, media coverage and Story Maps — will be determined on a case-by-case basis and will require explicit permission after discussion with each community partner.

Further, translation is crucial, considering the diverse languages and cultural knowledge frameworks involved. The team plans to translate key outputs into French, as well as a large number of Indigenous languages, to align key concepts with Indigenous knowledge frameworks in consultation with community partners.

“The network for this grant includes other academic institutions as well as First Nations,” says Supernant. “It is somewhat unique in that the awarded projects are designed to be part of a larger network of all the successful projects, so we are looking forward to seeing how that evolves.”