A First Nation in Ontario is working with a Winnipeg environmental assessment firm to help communities investigate sites of former residential schools with an Indigenous-led approach.

Missanabie Cree First Nation, through its company ISN Maskwa, is partnering with Narratives Inc. to provide services related to searching unmarked graves and burials, accessing archival records and gathering testimony.

The First Nation says the partnership is a step toward helping communities find the truth of what occurred in residential schools.

"We will be working together to help Indigenous communities investigate, map out and research what happened on residential schools for those who came home and those who did not," Missanabie councillor Les Nolan said Tuesday.

"This combined effort will assist us all in finding answers to the many questions our people and our families have. It is hoped that by obtaining these answers, the truth will come out and our families get to heal."

ISN Maskwa is an offshoot of the private security and investigative services firm Investigative Solutions Network. The team has experience investigating homicides, sexual assaults and other violent offences in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, said Nolan.

He added many of its investigators are Indigenous, which will help in providing culturally-relevant support.

"Because of the understanding and some lived experiences, our team has the ability to build upon many meaningful relationships in First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities across Canada."

Chief Jason Gauthier said in a statement that he hopes the partnership encourages other Indigenous-led initiatives to promote healing and work to find answers for communities.

First Nation works with environmental group to help in residential school searches. #ResidentialSchools #UnmarkedGraves

Narratives has been working with several Ontario First Nations in its investigations.

The organization said getting access to records and funding are the biggest challenges.

"We've heard time and time again from survivors that they want answers. And the answers are very difficult to find, where we're just scratching the surface here," said Somia Sadiq, founder of Narratives.

The federal government plans to spend $320 million to help Indigenous communities heal from the ongoing effects of residential schools through searching former school sites, holding ceremonies or memorializing sites. As of June, Indigenous Services Canada reported 84 funding arrangements.

The first step in investigations is to establish protocols for searches, ceremonies and rituals, said Sadiq. Then communities must decide what records need to be looked at.

Both groups hope by working together that they can educate the broader public and keep conversations about healing for survivors front and centre.

Narratives has already begun working with Wauzhushk Onigum Nation, near Kenora, Ont., in the investigation of the former St. Mary's Residential School, including using ground-penetrating radar to search the site.

Chief Chris Skead said the work has been challenging and they have relied on guidance from survivors.

Having an Indigenous-led approach to these investigations has been a long time coming, he said.

"We need that expertise, technology (and) that knowledge to come and help and assist communities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2022.

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