Supporting research on unmarked burials in the Northwest Territories
The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) supports Indigenous communities in developing strategies for recording potential unmarked burial sites at residential schools, as and when requested.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Call to Action 76 provides principles for documenting, maintaining, commemorating, and protecting residential school cemeteries. It is important to note that Call to Action 76 emphasizes that Indigenous communities shall lead the development of strategies for residential school cemeteries.
How the GNWT can support communities
Culture and Heritage provides two services that support research on unmarked burials in the NWT:
- Cultural Places Program (CCP) can assist communities by:
- Applying for funding to build community capacity to conduct field surveys for unmarked burials and/or hire specialists to conduct this work.
- Finding archaeologists or other scientists to work with a community to detect unmarked burials, as well specialists that specialize in the excavation of human remains.
- Finding existing information on former residential school sites, such as their spatial layouts.
- Conduct initial site surveys to look for any visible evidence of unmarked burials, such as surface depressions.
- NWT Archives may have records from schools in the NWT, can direct to other archives to search, or make suggestions for how to find additional records.
Who to contact
- Statement by the GNWT Premier on supporting research on unmarked gravesites
- Statement from Canada’s Ministers of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services
- Geophysics and Unmarked Graves: A Short Introduction for Communities
- Canadian Archaeological Association Resources
- Residential schools missing children - community support funding
- Government of Canada – Reconciliation
Frequently asked questions
- How can I get funding for these projects?
- What is ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and what is involved?
- Can the GNWT undertake GPR? Can they put me in touch with someone who can?
- What are the rules (laws/regulations) for doing research involving land disturbance or survey? Who can I contact to find out more?
The Government of Canada has commitment to spend at least $27 M to support activities related to:
- Locating, documenting, maintaining and commemorating burial sites associated with former residential schools.
- Responding to family wishes to commemorate or memorialize their losses and the children's final resting places.
For more information about federal funding, visit Residential schools missing children - community support funding.
Executive and Indigenous Affairs (EIA) and Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) are putting together background material to help Indigenous governments and organizations who are interested in leveraging the federal funding.
GPR is a non-invasive and cost-effective method that can be used to survey areas for unmarked burial sites, whereby burial sites can be identified without disturbing the ground.
GPR uses radio waves that are transmitted into the subsurface. Reflected signals are returned to and stored in an electronic device. The results of a GPR survey can be used to detect areas beneath the ground where the natural soil layers have been disturbed. This method can be used to detect grave shafts but does not directly detect human remains.
Knowledge of the area is very important for GPR surveys to be an effective method for detecting unmarked burials. Indigenous knowledge, historical information, and other forms of data on where burials were observed on a site in the past have been used to help focus and refine GPR surveys.
GPR is a non-intrusive, cost-effective, and time-sensitive alternative to traditional excavation.
The GNWT does not have the expertise to conduct GPR surveys that are specifically designed to detect unmarked burials. GNWT archaeologists have not been trained in the use of GPR but can assist communities in contacting specialists with these skills.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
What are the rules (laws/regulations) for doing research involving land disturbance or survey? Who can I contact to find out more?
Unmarked burials may meet the definition of an archaeological site in the NWT. As defined in the Archaeological Sites Regulations (ASR):
- An archaeological site is a site where an archaeological artifact is found.
- An archaeological artifact is defined as any tangible evidence of human activity that is more than 50 years old, in respect of which an unbroken chain of possession cannot be demonstrated (i.e., things that have been abandoned on the ground. Anything handed down from generation to generation within a family from the time the object was made is NOT an artifact).
- Burial sites found outside of designated community cemeteries may meet the definition of an archaeological site.
In cases where potential unmarked burials may meet the definition of an archaeological site, research to locate unmarked burials will require an NWT Archaeology Permit issued pursuant to the ASR.
The ASR enables the issuance of two types of permits:
- Class 1 permits allow a permit holder to survey and document the characteristics of an archaeological site in a manner that does not alter or otherwise disturb the archaeological site. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) studies do not disturb the ground, so they can be conducted under a Class 1 Permit.
- Class 2 permits allow a permit holder to survey and document the characteristics of an archaeological site, excavate an archaeological site, remove archaeological artifacts from an archaeological site, or otherwise alter or disturb an archaeological site. Any effort to excavate a potential unmarked grave to confirm the presence of human remains would require a Class 2 permit.
Section 16 of the Public Health Act requires permission from the Chief Public Health Officer to remove human remains from a grave.
Settled land claims in the NWT also have sections that guide the treatment of burial sites and human remains.
NWT Archaeology Permits are typically only issued to qualified archaeologists. CCP can assist communities to get in touch with archaeologists or other scientists. Please contact email@example.com for more information.