Content warning: The content on this page deals with residential schools, the death and disappearance of children, child abuse, genocide, and intergenerational trauma. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at all times, free of charge: 1-866-925-4419. Free support is also available through the Hope for Wellness chatline at 1-800-721-0066 or using the chat box at https://www.hopeforwellness.ca/.
The purpose of this page is to provide brief answers to some of the most common questions being asked by First Nations, Métis Nation and Inuit communities and families. This page will be frequently updated, adding more questions and answers. If there are questions that you think should be included, please contact the National Advisory Committee on Residential School Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.
The National Advisory Committee has also published a short document called Navigating the Search for Residential School Missing Children and Unmarked Burials which summarizes the key components and consideration of the search process. For more in-depth information on any of these topics, please see our resource guide which provides links to videos, webinars, factsheets and background documents.
What is involved in a search?
The search for missing children and unmarked burials typically involves many steps. We hear a lot about technologies, such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), that are used to search specific areas of land for possible burial sites. However, a ground search is only one step among many that might be taken. In fact, the Canadian Archaeological Association has recommended that a ground search should never be the first or only step taken.
Many Indigenous communities and families have now gone through different stages of the search process. What they have learned is that it is important to honour the children and to take care of the health and wellness of Survivors and the whole community at every step of the way. In doing so, they look to their own laws, protocols, teachings and cultural traditions.
The search process usually begins with a number of conversations with Survivors, their families and other community members about what they want to achieve. This includes talking about what to do if human remains are found.
Another critical stage is research. Speaking with Survivors, and their families, and reviewing old documents like school records and historical photographs can help answer questions like how many children are missing, how many are known to have died in the schools, and where burial sites may be located. This research helps documents Canada’s Indian Residential School system, can narrow down the areas to be searched, and – if remains are found – may be essential to determining the identity of those children.
It is important to remember there is no single case file that documents a child’s life at residential school. The records of a child’s school experience must be assembled from a variety of sources: documents of religious orders, police files, hospital records, personal diaries of teachers, official administrative reports, operational records and more. This can be considerable time and effort, but the result is a more complete picture of a child’s life at a school. This historical context is a tremendous aid to inform the search for unmarked burials.
What can be accomplished through a search?
It’s important to think about what your community or family – and other communities and families who may be affected – want to achieve through the search process. Some possibilities include:
- Finding answers about what happened to the children who never returned home.
- Locating and protecting burial sites.
- Honouring and remembering the children with ceremony.
- Returning any remains to their home communities.
- Gathering evidence for possible legal action or other accountability measures.
It is important to keep in mind that not every search will be able to locate or identify the children who went missing or who died. In some cases, too much time has passed, too many records have been lost, or the location is too difficult to search.
No matter the outcome, however, the search process can help record and preserve the truths of Survivors, educate young people and future generations about their experiences, honour the children who are missing, and promote healing for Survivors, their families and the community.
How long will the search process take?
The entire search process may take many years. Even a very limited ground search focused on surveying a specific potential burial site can take many months, both to the carry out the survey using ground penetrating radar and other technologies and to process and interpret the data.
How can we identify where our children were taken?
There are two main tools: the memories of Survivors and the records that were kept.
Institutions like the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia have gathered statements that have already been recorded, along with a great many other documents related to the residential schools. The trained archivists who work at these institutions can help you find information about where children from your community were taken.
However, in many cases, new research will be needed, to gather information from Survivors who have not told their stories before, or to access records that have not previously been released. Historians and other professional researchers may be able to help you with this work.
Once you have identified the schools or other institutions like hospitals and sanitoriums where the children were, the next step would be to reach out to the Nation on whose territory they were located. That Nation may be carrying out its own research and have gathered unique information that will help provide answers.
Who takes the lead in locating our missing children?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recommended that the search process should be led by the Indigenous Nation on whose territory the school was built. This is the model most widely used. However, there are also cases where Indigenous governments are developing regional search strategies involving multiple schools and territories.
In all cases, it’s important to keep in mind that children were brought to the schools from many Nations and territories. The families and communities of all the students need to be part of any process that is undertaken.
When we’re conducting a search on our territory, how can we connect with other communities whose children may have died or gone missing at an institution that was built on our lands?
Some communities that are conducting searches have reached out to all Nations who may have had children at the residential school or schools in their territory. This is a complex task that benefits from all communities helping each other.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has created a document that, for each school, identifies where the students came from. This list may not be complete. Survivors may have memories that can identify additional communities.
How can we develop the capacity needed to carry out a search?
Funding supports available through the federal government – and, in some cases, through provincial governments – can be used to build community capacity by hiring project staff, bringing in trainers, or purchasing equipment.
We know that different communities are at different stages in this work and have different levels of capacity. The National Advisory Committee is advocating for sufficient supports to assist every community equitably.
The National Advisory Committee is also promoting knowledge sharing among communities and families. We will be doing this through information posted on this website, and through a series of webinars and other events. In addition, a number of universities are now offering training in fields related to the search process.
Please see our resource guide for more information.
Who do I talk to if I have information to share about a specific school?
There may already be a process underway to record Survivor statements, eyewitness testimony and other information about that school. As a first step, you could contact your community, or the community on whose territory the school is located. You may also want to contact the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation or the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center at the University of British Columbia about options for providing testimony.
How can we find an unmarked burial?
There has been a lot of attention to technologies like GPR. GPR is helpful because it can gather information about what may lie beneath the surface of the land without having to disturb the earth. However, GPR can only tell part of the story. It can only tell us that there are “anomalies” – something unusual – beneath the surface. To determine whether these anomalies are likely unmarked burials, the scanning data needs to be brought together with Survivor knowledge and historical documents.
Locating possible unmarked burials is not easy. Important information may have been lost or forgotten. Flooding, development and other changes in the landscape may make search technology difficult or even impossible to use.
Communities need to decide for themselves how much certainty they require. The combination of Survivor knowledge, historical records and sensor data may provide very convincing evidence that a burial has been found. In many cases, however, questions may remain even after the search is completed.
If a community wants greater certainty, one option is to excavate the site. This doesn’t necessarily mean disturbing any burials. By removing just the top layer of soil, it may be possible to better determine if a grave has been dug. Whether to excavate or not is a difficult question and each community and family must choose what is best, in conversation with Survivors, their families and other affected community members.
Can we identify who is in what grave?
Depending on the circumstances, clear Survivor memories or detailed historical records may allow a community to confidently identify the remains that have been found. Opening the graves may make it possible to confirm details like the approximate age of the child. There is also the option to conduct DNA testing. If samples can be obtained from a close living relative, it may be possible to confirm the identity of any remains in this way. However, there are many concerns surrounding the process of collecting and storing DNA samples. It’s vital that any samples be kept secured, and protected against misuse, to respect privacy of the family and honour the laws and protocols of the Indigenous Nation.
How can we protect potential burial sites?
Protecting potential burial sites requires collaboration between Indigenous authorities and the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, as well as any third parties that might be involved, such as private landowners. Indigenous laws on the protection of burial sites, historical artifacts and sacred sites must be respected. Unfortunately, Canada does not currently have clear laws or regulations that Indigenous peoples can rely on to protect these sites. This is one of the issues about which the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential Schools will be making recommendations.
Health and wellness
What supports are available for Survivors, their families, and the community?
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at all times, free of charge: 1-866-925-4419. Free support is also available through the Hope for Wellness chatline at 1-800-721-0066 or using the chat box at https://www.hopeforwellness.ca/. These resources are always available.
Many communities have found, however, that the best supports are in person and based in the culture and traditions of their community. This includes one-on-one counselling, talking circles, ceremony, and the opportunity to take part in traditional practices of being on the land.
Health and wellness supports can be integrated into a community search plan that would be eligible for federal or provincial funding support. Many communities that have received funding for their search efforts have been establish specific health and wellness supports to support Survivors, their families, and other community members throughout the search process.
How can we develop a plan that is trauma-informed and culturally appropriate for our community?
Support for Survivors, their families, and their communities needs to be at the center of this work. Finding missing children can be a complex process that will take time, but Survivors and their families need to be supported now.
In addition to the supports available nationally and in provinces and territories, many communities have drawn on available funding to develop their own support system and process. In the future, the National Advisory Committee will be showcasing how some communities have conducted this work.
Any step of a search for missing children, even the discussion of considering this work, can be retraumatizing for Survivors. They need support before, during, and after any interaction with the search team. Supports can be specific to a Survivor and focused on physical, spiritual, and emotional health through medicine and ceremony. Supports can also be community-wide and focus on wellbeing, health and memorialization.
What is the role of ceremony in the search process?
To contribute to community healing, any search needs to respect Indigenous laws and protocols. Everyone involved must be treated with respect and with care for their health and well-being. Ceremony is an essential part of the process – and a model for how a search can be carried out in a good way.
There are a lot of good reasons why communities and families feel under pressure to act quickly in search for missing children. However, those communities that are already deeply engaged in the search process consistently advise taking the time to do things in a good way.
How can we memorialize the children who never returned home?
The best way to memorialize the children will depend on the traditions and teachings of each Nation. It is important to recognize, however, that the process of honouring and memorializing the children can be part of the process from the outset. It is not necessary to wait until burial sites have been found.
How can we support Survivors and families in the knowledge gathering process?
When asking Survivors and families to share their memories, it is important that they have ready access to any health and wellness supports that they may need. Such supports should be made available before, during, and after any statement gathering process. It is also important that Survivors and family members feel free to determine the supports they want and when they will access them. Options may include one-on-one counselling with an Elder, access to an anonymous helpline, and participation with others in a cultural event.
How do we support our community when the traumas of this history become more visible through work with Survivors?
Like supports for Survivors and their families, supports for communities should be readily available at all stages of the search process. And like supports for Survivors, it is important that supports for the community be offered in a variety of ways, with the option to access counselling or take part in activities grounded in the teachings and traditions of your Nation or in Western healthcare, or both. Particular attention should be given to the well-being of young people, who may be learning about the residential school system for the first time and not know how to express their needs.
What kinds of information and records are important for investigating unmarked graves?
A wide variety of information may help in locating unmarked graves. The memories of Survivors and their families are critical. A large number of Survivor statements have already been gathered through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and many oral history projects. In addition, the following kinds of documents should be considered.
- Residential school attendance records
- Correspondence between school administrators and government or church officials
- Reports of visits to residential schools by government officials
- Official death records
- Records of children transferred to hospitals or other facilities
- The records kept by the local parish
- Historical photographs
- Building plans
- Provincial and territorial land surveys
- Aerial photographs
- Records of past ground surveys which may have been carried out for roads and other infrastructure or for resource development
Which archives may have records about the residential school I’m researching?
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is the principle resource for documentary research into the history of residential schools and related burial sites. The NCTR is the official caretaker for all records gathered by the TRC, including Survivor statements The NCTR has been negotiating access to an extensive body of government and church records that were never released to the TRC. It now holds most of relevant records of the religious orders that ran the residential schools.
Other important archives including the National Archives of Canada, provincial and territorial archives, the Hudson Bay Company archives, and the archives maintained by individual churches and religious orders.
Where do we get help in locating, compiling, translating, and analyzing archival records?
All major archives have staff to assist in accessing their collections. More hands-on assistance can often be arranged through local universities and colleges.
The NCTR has a reference service that is a good placed to start this research. The NCTR has examined records of 150 church and government archives and other repositories to find records documenting residential schools. The reference service can also help coordinate your research with other records institutions. Contact [email protected].
The National Advisory Committee recognizes that like many of the technical parts of this process, working with archives can be challenging without specialized training. We are developing guidance and recommendations for capacity building in this and other areas of the work ahead.
Our community does not have an archive of our own, but we need one. What do we do?
Government funding currently available for search activities can be used to establish an archive.
An archive has three main components: a way to store and protect the information you gather, including both electronic and physical documents; a way to organize this information so that it can be searched and analyzed; and knowledgeable staff to manage the process.
Putting this components in place requires three kinds of resources: human resources, technical expertise, and financial resources. It is important to have these resources in place, along with a plan for how information is to be protected, before starting to acquire records and documents.
Critically, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Existing archives, and Nations that have already engaged in research, have developed systems of information protection and categorization that they can share. There are many organizations that offer helpful, free guidelines for protecting digital records. The NCTR, in collaboration with the National Film Board, and Library and Archives Canada have developed useful guidelines and policies for digital preservation. Some examples can already be found in our resource guide; others will be added to this website over time.
There are many different software platforms available for organizing and protecting this information. One important consideration is how well any platform will interact with those chosen by other communities with whom you may be collaborating. Cost is another important consideration. It is important to note that some software requires annual license the cost of which could potentially increase over time.
Why are some residential school records being destroyed and what can be done about it?
As part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, Survivors provided statements in order to qualify for individual compensation. Unlike other statement gathering processing, like the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the ongoing work of the NCTR, the compensation process was not intended to create a lasting record. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that in order to protect the privacy of the Survivors, statements gathered under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) and the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process have to be destroyed by 2027.
The Supreme Court has decided statements can still be protected from destruction if Survivors fill out a form asking that their own statement be preserved for education and research. In this case, the records will be preserved at the NCTR for long term preservation and use. In addition, Survivors can also request that their statements be returned to them so that they can share it as they wish. Both options remain available until September 19, 2027.
To preserve your record, see: https://nctr.ca/records/preserve-your-records/iap-adr-records/
What kind of geographic information is helpful to a search?
It’s helpful to gather as much information as possible about the grounds and the how they have been used, during the time of residential school and in the years since. This includes:
- knowledge of the location of missing children from records and Survivors, the geology of the landscape over time, and
- any construction or disturbances on the land.
All this information will be helpful to identify priority areas to search, to decide which search techniques will produce the best results, and to help interpret the data that is gathered.
How can we find historic maps and air photographs of the landscapes where missing children might rest?
Canadian governments (federal, provincial, territorial and municipal) have been collecting information about the landscapes of residential schools for as long as they existed. These include air photographs (taken from planes) and other forms of mapmaking. This information is held in different places by different governments, and the NAC is encouraging Indigenous Services Canada and other government agencies to make these resources easily available to all communities conducting searches.
The National Air Photo Library in Ottawa has a very large collection of photos of residential schools. The NCTR is in the process of setting up a program to digitize and make these accessible through their site.
Ground search technologies
What is Ground Penetrating Radar?
Ground penetrating radar (GPR) is one of several technologies that can be used to locate disturbances in the ground that are not visible to the eye. GPR is widely used for things such as finding buried pipes. A key advantage is that using GPR does not disturb the ground. There is growing experience in Canada in using GPR in the search for unmarked burials.
How does GPR work?
GPR is similar to navigational radar: it sends out a signal and interprets the location of something by the signal that is reflected back. GPR surveys can be conducted by roaming or in grids; often these are used together.
What does GPR see?
The GPR records variations in the signal that bounces back from beneath the ground. These variations indicate different kinds of disturbances in the ground. Once the data is processed by specialized software, a trained technician can spot those variations that are consistent with what burials look like. The GPR doesn’t provide a detailed picture, but specialists can interpret the results to say whether or not there is a high likelihood that a burial site has been found.
Where does it work?
To use a GPR unit, the area to be surveyed must be more or less clear of obstacles such as trees, or even high grass. GPR can’t be used if the ground is covered by snow or ice. The terrain will also affect whether or not the scan will produce useful data. Areas that are waterlogged are difficult to scan accurately. Some soil types are also difficult to interpret. In these cases, other technology may produce better results.
How long does it take?
GPR surveys take months to complete. The length of time required to do a survey will depend on the amount of ground to be covered. Typically, a survey might cover up to 200 to 400 square meters in a day.
How much does it cost?
A GRP survey requires a small crew to operate the equipment as well as specialized technicians to record and interpret the data. The rates vary. There are several university-based partners who may be able to help conduct a survey at a minimal cost – or at least at a lower cost than a private company. If you employ a private company, you can expect to pay $3000 to $5000 for each day of the survey.
What other technologies can be used?
Magnetometry and electrical resistance are two other remote sensing technologies that can be used to gather information about what lies beneath the surface of the earth without disturbing the land. LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and Sonar can be used to gather detailed information about disturbances to the surface, even where these disturbances cannot be seen by eye or where trees and other obstacles hide this information from sight. Aerial photography and drone photography are also important tools for mapping a site.
What about dog searches?
There are dogs that have been specifically trained to search for the scent of human remains. Cadaver Dogs are trained to search for the recently deceased. Historic Human Remains Detection Dogs are trained to search for much older remains where only bones or teeth may be found. There are also dogs trained to search for the ashes of cremated bodies. It is well established that properly trained dogs can determine if there are remains in the general area of the search, however they usually cannot accurately locate specific burials.
For more information, please see: https://www.ualberta.ca/prairie-indigenous-archaeology/media-library/resources/hhrdd-guide.pdf
Recovery and identification of human remains
What does the term “human remains” mean?
The term “human remains” refers to the human body at any stage of decomposition. Depending on the amount of time that has passed and the conditions of the burial, remains might include a recognizable body, an intact skeleton, or only fragments of bones.
What does it mean to “exhume” human remains?
Exhumation means opening a burial site and examining the remains. The remains may be removed or examined in place. Exhumation is also the first step in transferring remains to a different burial site. The provinces and territories each have their own laws about exhumation. However, they all require that a permit be granted before any burial site is opened.
What happens during the identification process?
In the identification process, the remains are examined for information that could help determine their age at death, sex, height or cause of death. These examinations are considered “non-invasive”: no bone or tissue is taken away.
However, if there is agreement to do so, there is also the option to take a sample of bone or tissue for analysis. For example, DNA analysis might help establish identity. Another form of analysis, called isotropic analysis, is sometimes used to determine how long ago the child died. Forensic examiners are expected to ensure that every person is afforded the appropriate respect and attention. Cultural and religious practices must be respected.
What happens once remains have been identified?
Once the identification has been made, the designated contact person will be notified and arrangements will be made to return the remains.
What happens if the remains cannot be identified?
It is always a possibility that the remains will not be identified. If the examiner is unable to identify the remains, they will notify the designated contact person. Affected communities and families should address this possibility in advance and decide what they would like done. For example, a ceremony could be held to give a spirit name to the remains which could be buried according to an agreed protocol.
What is the role of police?
If part of the purpose of a search is to gather information for possible criminal prosecution of individuals responsible for the deaths of children, it will be necessary to collaborate with the police service or services that have jurisdiction. For example, the Mohawk Institute Survivors’ Secretariat has formed a Joint Police Task Force that includes the Six Nations Police, the Brantford municipal police and the Ontario Provincial Police. The Task Force also works with the Coroner’s Office.
Depending on the wishes of the community and families, local police services may be called on in other ways, such as helping protect the search site and ensuring the safety of those carrying out the search. It is recommended that lines of communication with local police services be established early in the process.
How can we get access to land that is in the hands of private landowners or the federal, provincial or territorial governments?
There are no formal processes in place to access lands for the purposes of a ground search. Communities and families must decide for themselves whether they want to reach out to private landowners or the federal, provincial and territorial governments to inform them of any search plans or to obtain formal permission.
What happens if we don’t get permission?
Indigenous peoples should be able to expect federal, provincial and territorial governments to cooperate with a search process. Many private landowners will also want to have a cooperative relationship. That being said, there is always a risk that carrying out a search without permission could lead to conflict with the registered landowner, including the potential for trespassing charges to be laid, or future access to be blocked.