WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Leah Redcrow never went to residential school, but that doesn’t mean she escaped its long reach.
Three generations of his family were sent to the Blue Quills residential school in Saddle Lake, a Cree First Nation located 170 kilometers northeast of Edmonton.
His grandfather survived the institution, but 10 of his siblings did not.
One of those siblings, a seven-year-old girl named Eva, has no burial record.
“She’s not even listed as deceased,” says Redcrow, executive director of the Acimowin Opaspiw Societya group that researches the history of the school.
Redcrow only learned of Eva’s existence during his investigation. “We don’t know where her body is,” he says. Like many other children, Eva simply never returned home and disappeared from the historical record.
Correcting that record was a key recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report when it was published in December 2015.
These types of investigations are taking place across the country, led by Indigenous nations, groups and organizations attempting to unravel the dark mysteries left behind by Canada’s residential school system while also providing some clarity and closure for survivors, families and affected communities.
Paying for work
September 30 is National Truth and Reconciliation Day, designated in 2021 to recognize the tragic legacy of residential schools. At the time, the commission had documented 4,117 deaths of indigenous children in boarding schools, but the real number could exceed all estimates.
The death rate among children in residential schools was much higher than that of the general school-age population, and parents were rarely informed of their children’s illness, death, or burial.
“No one bothered to count how many died or record where they were buried,” read the TRC’s final report, which summarizes the need and challenges of ongoing investigations.
But the first obstacle to that work is cost.
In 2009, a year after the TRC was established, the commission requested $1.5 million to carry out investigative work similar to what is being done now. The federal government denied the request.
More than a decade later, in June 2021, the federal government launched a major funding program for groups to conduct research. The program, which received criticism for the slowness with which money comes out, was funded through the first quarter of 2025.
As of September 25, 150 applications had been received, of which 117 approved for a total of $160 million, according to a statement from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.
Of those not approved, three projects were deemed ineligible, two were not recommended for funding, three applications were withdrawn, and one application was redirected to another funding program. The rest are still under evaluation.
Several provinces have also provided similar funding, including Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
The Alberta government announced its program in 2021. The $8 million fund was created to provide grants to Indigenous communities and groups conducting investigations into residential school deaths. Funding was capped at $150,000 for individual group proposals, with no limit for joint submissions.
According to an Indigenous Relations spokesperson, the province approved grants from 43 different Indigenous communities or organizations, paying out the $8 million in the 2021/2022 fiscal year.
Survivors are ‘tough negotiators’
Redcrow’s grandfather, Stanley Redcrow, led a sit-in at the Blue Quills residential school, forcing the federal government to the negotiating table and eventually transferring the school to First Nations control in 1971.
Perhaps taking advantage of that unyielding inheritance, Leah Redcrow, along with the survivors of the Acimowin Opaspiw Society, negotiated with the federal government to move from their initial offer of $300,000 to an eventual sum of $1.1 million.
“They’re tough negotiators,” Redcrow says of the survivors, laughing. “They kept rejecting and rejecting and rejecting.”
Asked about those negotiations, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said in a statement that “the Acimowin Opaspiw Society and the departmental program officer responsible for the file clarified the objectives, activities and budget of the proposal and “were able to agree on an amount of funding that would support those activities and objectives.”
After writing a preliminary report detailing progress, particularly with church records, the group received additional money. The nearly $6.4 million allocated to the partnership over four years is the most of any group in Alberta and the fourth-highest nationally.
Funding is crucial because the costs for groups doing historical research are considerable, and after several years things start to get expensive.
There are salaries for staff such as the project manager and researchers, document translation and office expenses. There are costs associated with commemoration work, community engagement or interviews with older people, sometimes including travel expenses.
And then there is specialized work, such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR) used to detect anomalies consistent with unmarked graves.
Radar searches are often misunderstood
The use of GPR has resulted in headline-grabbing findings that focused the national spotlight on the human cost of residential schools, even if they only served to confirm what was already known.
The May 2021 news of 215 possible unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation made international news, marking something of a turning point in the use of technology at former residential school sites .
“I think the Tk’emlúps announcement resonated nationally and internationally in a way we’ve never seen before,” says Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Indigenous and Prairie Archeology at the University of Alberta.
“Even when other kinds of related issues have been raised – even after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the whole missing children chapter – we hadn’t seen this kind of resonance and response from non-Indigenous people, especially in Canada “
While other organizations perform GPR in this context, Supernant has become one of its most prominent practitioners in Canada. She says she and her team have worked in 12 former schools, held more than 20 engagement sessions with interested communities, and have been approached by more than 50 countries and other groups seeking residential schools.
Supernant says GPR should be used in conjunction with other information, such as archival research or oral histories, to identify potential unmarked graves of children. The numerous discovery announcements that followed Tk’emlúps (including at Cowesses, Star Blanket Cree, Blue Quills, and elsewhere) and the growing whirlwind of news coverage contributed to false expectations about what GPR can do. As Supernant points out, there were often years of work behind those ads.
The importance of those discoveries is often mischaracterized.
The residential school system, which ended in 1997 after more than a century, has long been known to have led to a significant number of deaths and missing children. The oral histories of indigenous communities affected by residential schools are littered with stories of children who were taken away and never returned home. School or parish records, although often irregular, also bear witness to these disappearances and deaths.
“We don’t need to find them to know that thousands of children died. We have extensive records of that,” Supernant says. “What we’re trying to do is find specific locations and provide additional information to communities that want to investigate further.”
Survivor- and community-led initiatives
What is crucial, according to those involved in this work, is that communities have control and determine what work needs to be done and how best to do it.
Governments have provided funding within a fairly broad set of parameters, but local groups have been left to determine their path forward, often with survivors in the lead.
“My big concern right now is that people will stop paying attention,” Supernant says. “And once that attention is no longer given, what will happen to the funding? What will happen to the supports?”
In St. Albert, Alta., a city on the northwest edge of Edmonton, the St. Albert-Sturgeon County Métis Local is part of a collaborative investigation with multiple First Nations and Innu groups affected by the Youville residential school.
Local president Archie Arcand says the work is important and long overdue for the communities.
It is also an opportunity to help others better understand what the residential school system has brought to the table in human terms.
Arcand remembers a story he was told.
“In this particular case, they were riding a boat along the river. There was an RCMP [member] on the boat and the person from the residential school. They would stop at a community, an isolated community, and pick up the children. I have no choice, I have to come,” she says. “I put myself in those people’s shoes and say: Holy shit. How would you react?”
And he adds: “You can understand why there is so much trauma.”
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can access crisis and emotional referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counseling 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 via online chat .