More potential remains found at former Williams Lake residential school

Editor’s note: Emotional support or assistance for those who are affected by the residential school system can be found at Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1 (800) 721-0066 or 24-hr Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419.

The Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) says the use of ground penetrating radar at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School found 66 “reflections” that “display characteristics indicative of potential human remains.”

The Nation is sharing the results of Phase 2 of its geophysical investigation of the site, which included searching an additional 18 hectares of land.

Phase 1 of the investigation previously found 93 such reflections at the former residential school site, which was announced in early 2022.

“WLFN emphasizes that no geophysical investigation can provide absolute certainty as to the presence of human remains, and that excavation of these reflection areas would be required to make a definitive determination,” the nation said in a news release.

Chief Willie Sellars of the WLFN says the community will continue to work with survivors and their families as they look to get more information.

“This is a very complicated, stressful and emotionally draining process so we want to continue to conduct this investigation in as positive and supportive a way as possible,” he said.

“WLFN remains committed to seeking resolution and truth for those survivors and families who have lost children through the residential school system at St. Joseph’s Mission.”

Investigation finds at least 28 confirmed child deaths at St. Joseph’s

According to the lead of the investigation, Whitney Spearing, records from the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation indicate 16 children died at the Mission Residential School while it was operational.

However, she points out that the WLFN investigation has revealed at least 28 children died.

“We are also aware that many of these children are buried at the mission in unmarked graves,” Spearing said at the announcement.

“It is also clear that many of the children and infant babies born at the mission as a product of child sexual assault were disposed of through incineration on an off-site at the mission,” she added.

Spearing also notes that the reflections detected in Phase 2 of the investigation were found in areas that weren’t associated with any cemeteries.

“All reflections seen in the GPR data have been marked and reviewed through a rigorous called quality control process,” she said.

“Our investigation team is committed to seeking resolution and truth for those survivors and families.”

She adds the investigation has included numerous interviews with those connected with the residential school, including one with a former teacher that was conducted in Thailand.

St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School was opened in 1891 by Roman Catholic missionaries. The Canadian government took over in its final decades until the institution was closed in 1981.

It was also known as the Cariboo Residential School.

WLFN Chief hopes for deeper analysis of findings

With the findings from the second phase of the residential school investigation now revealed, Sellars says the next steps will include a more comprehensive look at what’s been found.

“We specifically will be seeking funding for the remaining phases of geophysical work and the potential in excavation and exhumation in the phase one and two areas,” he said.

Sellars says all work is being done with the utmost respect and sensitivity, given how far-reaching the impacts of the school were.

“We have identified 48 different Nations that had kids attend the St. Joseph’s Mission. Forty-eight Nations to potentially engage with when we start talking about excavation and exhumation is a scary thought. But by working together, we feel confident that we’ll be able to hold each other up through this process,” he said.

“The efforts to investigate and reconcile the deaths and disappearances of children at these institutions must be through the leadership of First Nations people and communities,” Sellars continued. “Today we have commitment from the federal and provincial governments of investigation into the St. Joseph Mission will continue through the Williams Lake First Nation.”

The Nation will hold a Sacred Fire from Wednesday afternoon until Saturday evening.

In response to the WLFN announcement, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs says it stands with the survivors of the Mission Residential School, calling it one of the most “notorious” schools that ran for over a century.

“We raise our hands to Chief Sellars, the Williams Lake First Nations administration, community members and investigative team for their diligence, care, and leadership and offer our support and steadfast commitment to stand behind BC First Nations seeking justice, accountability and healing,” the union said.

With files from Mike Lloyd

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