WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Alberta will provide $8 million to support Indigenous-led research into undocumented deaths and burials at residential schools, Premier Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.
The funding announcement follows the discovery last month of a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.'s southern Interior.
Preliminary findings from a survey using ground-penetrating radar suggest the site contains the remains of 215 children, according to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.
"The discovery of the 215 remains of students at the former Kamloops residential school has shaken our nation and called all of us to reflect on the wickedness of the Indian residential school system which existed in this country for a century," Kenney told a news conference in Edmonton.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates 6,000 children died while attending the government-sanctioned schools designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children as part of a cultural genocide. Over 800 of those deaths were in Alberta.
"The horrendousness of that system is hard for us today to comprehend, and we have now been reminded that there have been many of those students who were buried in unmarked graves or graves that have been lost, and we've been reminded that we have a moral obligation to find them, to recover their memory, to honour those sites and their lives," Kenney said.
Under Alberta's Residential Schools Community Research Grant program, grant money is available for commemorative work, ground-penetrating radar to explore potential unmarked burial sites and research, including gathering oral histories and knowledge from elders as appropriate.
The grants could also be used to partner with experts in locating remains or community-led engagement to determine how to proceed with a burial site.
Indigenous communities and organizations can submit a research proposal for a single residential school site. Individual applications can receive up to a maximum of $150,000. For joint submissions, there is no funding cap. Applications will be accepted until Jan. 15, 2022.
Chief Billy Morin of the Enoch Cree Nation, just west of Edmonton, said the grant program will help to address the history of "abuse and wrongfulness" Indigenous people have suffered in Canada.
"With this announcement today, that story never ends," Morin said. "It keeps going, and those open wounds are very much open at this time with Kamloops and things that are going around the country right now."
Morin said it's too early to tell if the provincial funding will be adequate to do the work that communities and organizations choose to pursue.
"This is a great start, though," he said. "And we'll probably end up pulling it up with federal funds that have been announced, but not specifically for the province of Alberta."
The Kamloops discovery sparked a national outcry.
In its wake, there have been repeated calls for provinces to pay for search efforts at former residential school sites.
On Monday, National Indigenous People's Day, Manitoba announced it will spend $2.5 million on investigating burial sites at former residential schools across the province.
Last week, Saskatchewan committed to spending $2 million to search residential school sites for unmarked graves. The province and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations called on Ottawa to match the provincial funding.
The Ontario government last week pledged $10 million over the next three years to identify and commemorate residential school burial sites.
In its 2019 budget, the federal government earmarked $33 million to implement burial-related recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said $27 million of that funding is still available to help Indigenous communities find and commemorate lost children.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.