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Ground-penetrating radar is used to search for human remains on some of the 500 acres of land associated with the Mohawk Institute, a former residential school, in Brantford, Ont., on Nov. 9, 2021.TARA WALTON/The New York Times News Service

The RCMP, who have long faced criticism over their troubled relationship with Indigenous people in Canada, are poised to receive $5.1-million over five years, beginning this fiscal year, to support community-led responses to unmarked burial sites at former residential schools.

The spending, included in the recently tabled federal budget, is intended to help Indigenous people and all Canadians search for the truth about the legacy of the residential school system, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said in an interview.

The key part, he said, is that the Mounties will act only at the request of Indigenous communities.

Jessica Eritou, a spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, said the funding would be used by the RCMP’s National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains to provide policing services that build trust.

Unmarked burial sites at former residential schools rose to national attention last year, after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said a search using ground-penetrating radar had located children’s graves at the former Kamloops Residential School.

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The announcement led to commemorations across Canada and demands for governments to take action, including by helping communities search the grounds of former schools. A number of other Indigenous communities have since made similar findings at school sites in their own territories. In January, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told The Globe and Mail it was important for the Mounties to work with communities to determine an approach to investigations of the burials.

It’s unclear, however, how much support the affected communities want from the RCMP, considering the force’s historical role in establishing and maintaining the residential school system.

For more than 150 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation children were removed from their families and communities so they could attend the schools, which were often located far from their homes. More than 150,000 children attended, and many died. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which spent six years examining the lasting impacts of residential schools, said this amounted to “cultural genocide.”

During much of the residential school era, Mounties acted as truant officers, assisting with removing Indigenous children from their homes – often forcibly – and transporting them to the institutions, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the RCMP.

Two RCMP commissioners, Giuliano Zaccardelli in 2004 and Bob Paulson in 2014, have apologized for the force’s involvement in residential schools.

The 2011 report, titled “The Role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police during the Indian Residential School system,” noted a lack of trust between Indigenous people and the RCMP and said many former students reported they feared the Mounties and, as a result, were reluctant later in life to contact police.

Mr. Mendicino said the RCMP and the government are committed to restoring trust in the force.

“This is going to be a challenge,” he said. “But this is about taking a meaningful step towards the pursuit of truth and another step forward on the journey towards reconciliation.”

So far, demand from Indigenous communities for RCMP support with unmarked burials appears minimal.

“We are not looking for RCMP assistance,” said Kimberly Murray, executive lead of the Six Nations of the Grand River Survivors’ Secretariat, which is coordinating a 600-acre search around the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, near Brantford, Ont. “But we would like their records.”

The Six Nations project is perhaps the most elaborate search for unmarked graves in the country. With $10.2-million in federal funding, the community is buying ground-penetrating radar equipment, training local staff to conduct searches, conducting oral and documentary research and appointing three people to oversee a police task force that will investigate deaths at the school.

The task force includes the Six Nations Police, Brantford Police and Ontario Provincial Police – but not the RCMP, who once maintained a detachment in the community.

In Saskatchewan, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) received $5-million from Ottawa last year to assist with searches for unmarked graves in some of its 74 member First Nations. At least eight communities in the province have already started looking. There, too, First Nations haven’t been clamouring for the RCMP’s help.

“The RCMP have very little involvement in this work,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron. “I’m not sure why the public safety minister would allocate $5-million to do this.”

He’s urging Commissioner Lucki to direct the funds toward affected First Nations communities.

“Where we do need RCMP involvement is in addressing the illegal sale of alcohol and drugs in our communities,” he said. “The RCMP has been doing some really good work in that regard, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

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