Williams Lake First Nation identifies 93 potential burial sites at former residential school

Students at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, BC, in 1943.Deschâtelets-NDC Archive

Williams Lake First Nation has announced the discovery of 93 potential graves at the sprawling site of a former residential school in BC’s Central Interior, 50 of which appear to be outside the facility’s cemetery.

Archaeologist Whitney Spearing, head of St. Joseph’s Mission Residential Schools investigation team said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that a variety of scientific techniques were being used to search a 14-acre site. They included ground-penetrating radar, the technology that supported the discovery of about 200 unmarked graves near Kamloops last spring that spurred Williams Lake to do its own work.

The school closed in 1981, after 90 years of operation.

Ms. Spearing’s team interviewed survivors from the school from eight different First Nations and analyzed records and photographs to narrow the search area. They also used a laser radar instrument known as LiDAR, mounted on a small plane, and another on the ground to map the location of old pipes and remnants of demolished buildings. This allowed them to narrow the search area to a small piece of the 470 acres on which the Roman Catholic Church’s facility and its adjacent ranch once stood, Ms. Spearing.

“It must be emphasized that no geophysical studies can provide certainty for the presence of human remains – excavation is the only technology that will provide answers as to whether human remains are present,” said Ms. Spearing to journalists.

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Investigators are still seeking to interview more survivors and work through archives and burial records from the cemetery, which were in use until the school closed, to better understand where burials took place, she said.

“Our investigative team is committed to seeking solution and truth for the survivors and families who have lost children through the homeschooling system on St. Joseph’s Mission,” said Ms. Spearing.

The cemetery area covers a small part of the area that was searched, with most of the potential graves found in other parts of the site.

“The team is working hard to understand how the 93 potential burials correlate with the historic and modern extent of the cemetery,” said Ms. Spearing.

Still, Kukpi7 (boss) Willie Sellars said many of the children who went to school are not known. He also noted survivors’ accounts of the long history of sexual and physical abuse at the facility. Several former teachers were jailed in the 1980s and 1990s for sex crimes involving dozens of their students.

“In survivors’ stories that are disturbing without words, we have heard detailed descriptions of how the unwanted babies of certain priests at St. Joseph’s were burned in the incinerator,” said Kukpi7 Sellars.

Former Senator Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said last summer that some survivors told of young girls giving birth to babies who were the father of priests and infants being “taken from them and deliberately killed.”

Last May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had identified what are believed to be the remains of more than 200 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, news that made international headlines and started a new one national inventory with the legacy of Canada’s colonial education system.

Following the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc discovery, the BC government announced grants of up to $ 475,000 each to 21 First Nations to help search for human remains at former residential schools or state hospitals set up to treat First Nations people.

The BC government designated two connections to help First Nations communities with searches. One of these representatives, Charlene Belleau, told The Canadian Press last summer that she would like to find the remains of Augustine Allen, an ancestor who took her own life while at St. Louis. Joseph’s.

On Tuesday, Kukpi7 Sellars said official records were revealed indicating that some students ran away and that an 8-year-old boy died in the wild from exposure.

“At that time, the forensic pathologist’s service and the RCMP saw no reason to investigate the death, as the child ‘was only an Indian,'” Kukpi7 Sellars said.

He also noted that letters from parents to the school show that a group of nine students tried to kill themselves by ingesting poisoned hemlock. Kukpi7 Sellars said Augustine Allen was the only one who died.

At Tuesday’s news conference, he acknowledged the support of provincial and federal governments and thanked the ministers of indigenous relations and reconciliation for attending. But he said more funding is needed to continue this investigation.

Kukpi7 Sellars said immediate steps should be taken to protect the site and the evidence with 24-hour security, while discussions are being held on whether to excavate. In the meantime, he said, outreach work will continue with survivors and families of former students.

“In the coming weeks, the team will engage directly with the communities where children are known to be missing or dead to discuss the investigation, return records and photographs of their children lost through the homeschooling system on St. Joseph’s Mission,” Kukpi7 Sellars said .

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their loved ones suffering from trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

With a report from the Canadian press

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