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Outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, a makeshift memorial honours the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility surrounds a monument, in Kamloops on June 4, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Grassroots fundraisers and corporations as large as SNC-Lavalin have begun offering First Nations help to scour sites for the remains of residential school children, a private push for these searches that experts warn is fraught with complexity.

The Montreal-based engineering and construction giant recently sent a letter to more than 50 First Nations across Canada inviting them to use the company’s ground-penetrating radar equipment and offering its in-house analysts to prepare reports on anything found within the two-metre soil layer these machines are able to scan.

The opening line of the offer, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, says the firm realized it could help after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced it recently discovered the unmarked graves of 215 children at the former site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

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“If after our study the Chief, council, elders, or other members of the community have questions or seek clarity, we can offer to help in explaining our findings,” states the June 7 letter. “During the work, we can work with community members to do the survey, and perhaps help community members who may have the desire and background skills to learn how to do the field work and perhaps the interpretation.”

SNC spokesperson Harold Fortin said so far more than 10 First Nations have responded with interest in the offer. He declined to explain how these communities were chosen or comment further on a letter the company considers private other than saying: “This was an idea by our employees who felt heartbroken because of the situation.”

A week before that letter was sent, a trio of Indigenous friends living on Vancouver Island began crowdfunding online and now have raised nearly $140,000 that it will use to buy two or three of these radar machines.

Campaigner Steve Sxwithul’txw, a film producer from the Penelakut Tribe, said they are hoping to help local First Nations search four former sites on Vancouver Island or on islands surrounding it: St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay, Port Alberni’s school, and the Ahousaht and Christie schools, both near Tofino.

“We’re not an expert in this field,” Mr. Sxwithul’txw said. “We’re talking to multiple companies that provide these types of services.”

Two of Canada’s leading experts at scanning residential school sites for remains welcomed the thought behind those two projects, which are not using the $27-million in federal funding for this work that was recently unlocked.

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However, they warned that SNC-Lavalin and other private contractors may have the technology but not the required level of skill and experience to reliably identify what is uncovered when thousands of high-frequency radio waves are shot into the earth and reflected back.

Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, said she is not confident SNC’s staff analysts can pivot to identifying remains and grave shafts. One hurdle, she said, is that the radar produces different images in various parts of the continent, with the shell-strewn terrain of B.C.’s coast presenting particular challenges, for example.

“If they’re going to fund it I don’t really have an opinion, but if they’re going to do it, they need to follow the highest-possible technical standards ... and the communities have to have a lot of say in how the whole process happens,” said Dr. Supernant, who is Métis.

Terence Clark, a University of Saskatchewan researcher and professor who specializes in community-based archaeology, said he is worried that First Nations might end up receiving shoddy analyses after rushing to commit to these projects amid pressure to find remains on their territory in the wake of the Tk’emlúps revelation.

“If it’s not good work, that just adds to the trauma,” Dr. Clark said.

Instead, he said, companies could donate funds to help with the other more labour-intensive tasks that must be completed before the radar is brought out, such as searching church archives for records or interviewing survivors for clues as to where any bodies are buried.

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At sites where good record-keeping and local knowledge exists, Dr. Clark estimates it could cost a First Nation more than $100,000 and take up to a year to confirm remains.

Ottawa’s portal for Indigenous governments or non-profits to apply for grants from the 2019 federal budget is now live and offers applicants up to $24,500 to research where remains may lie at an individual school site and up to $125,000 for doing the radar mapping, exhuming remains and interring them elsewhere, or holding homecoming ceremonies and other activities such as healing circles and feasts.

Kyle Fournier, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said in an e-mailed statement that work is now under way to disburse these funds and that information on the requests received so far will be published on the department’s website as soon as possible.

He said his department’s role is solely to make access to these resources available to these communities, when asked if CIRNAC would evaluate the quality of work done by the radar technicians and analysts hired by these First Nations.

This gap in standards is why Dr. Clark, Dr. Supernant and others with the Canadian Archaeological Association are about to release a public road map of the various steps First Nations can take to find remains.

Expectations must be tempered, Dr. Clark said, given the passage of time and that some bodies were never buried at all.

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“Both the media and the general public think it’s magic and it’s going to find every burial – it’s not and there are limitations,” he said.

With a report from Wendy Stueck

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