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B.C. First Nation finds 93 possible burial sites at former residential school

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — A First Nation in British Columbia says a preliminary geophysical investigation has identified 93 "reflections" that could indicate the number of children buried around the site of a former residential school.

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — A First Nation in British Columbia says a preliminary geophysical investigation has identified 93 "reflections" that could indicate the number of children buried around the site of a former residential school.

Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation said Tuesday that only excavation would confirm the presence of human remains and much more work is needed to make final determinations.

He said 14 of 470 hectares around the former St. Joseph's Mission Residential School have so far been examined as part of a process to discover what happened to children who did not return home. 

The investigation near Williams Lake comes after the use of ground-penetrating radar led to the discovery last year of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

CAUTION: The following paragraphs contain details some readers might find distressing.  

Sellars said survivors recounted stories of children who were fathered by priests being incinerated, and of "many" children who attended the school being unaccounted for. 

"Their bodies were cast into the river, left at the bottom of lakes, tossed like garbage into the incinerators," he said. "For those children there will be no headstone, no unmarked grave, no small fragment of bone to be forensically analyzed. For those families there will be no closure. It is for those children and families that we grieve the most."

Sellars said survivors and others from the Williams Lake First Nation and nearly a dozen nearby First Nations will be provided with cultural and mental health support after the discovery at the former residential school.

"The horrors that occurred inside the walls of St. Joseph's Mission are still very real for those who lived there. And the legacy of these atrocities is still readily apparent in the numerous ways that intergenerational trauma manifests in First Nations communities."

Whitney Spearing, who led the project, said the 93 reflections have been categorized as having either a high or low probability of being human remains based on their location, surroundings and depth.

"It is important to note that there is still much work to be completed within the Phase 1 area of the investigation," she said.

That work includes additional use of ground-penetrating radar and the analysis of records on burials at a historical cemetery.

"Current data suggest that 50 of the potential 93 burials are not associated with the cemetery," she added. "The investigation team has mapped out existing graves in the modern extent of the cemetery and is taking detailed recordings of headstones."

Interviews with survivors were instrumental in determining specific areas for geophysical work in a large search area, Spearing said, adding aerial imaging was also used to detect the presence of some former buildings as well as roads and irrigation ditches.

She said the investigation team is hopeful that the federal government's announcement last week to release more records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation will be backed up by making "proactive and full disclosure of top priority."

"At this time, there are several key sets of documents that remain missing, including school quarterly returns between 1941 and 1980 as well as daily registers of pupils between 1941 and 1981."

The St. Joseph's Mission Residential School was opened by the Roman Catholic Church in 1891 as an industrial school where First Nations children did labour like timber splitting, cattle rearing and farming, Sellars said. It remained open until 1981.

Chief Judy Wilson, secretary-treasurer of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said the group stands with the Williams Lake First Nation and the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops as well as other nations "undertaking the painful, traumatizing task of identifying and honouring stolen children" at former residential school sites elsewhere in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the news from Williams Lake First Nation brings a lot of distressing emotions to the surface. 

"My heart breaks for the members of the community, and for those whose loved ones (who) never came home," Trudeau said on Twitter. 

"Together, with their leadership, we'll continue to advance healing and reconciliation – and share the truths that Indigenous peoples from across the country have long known." 

Murray Rankin, British Columbia's minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, issued a statement in support of the Williams Lake First Nation, raising his hands to "the courage and leadership they have shown in sharing their preliminary findings, further underscoring the harmful history and legacy of the residential school system here in British Columbia."

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documenting the experiences of survivors and others affected by Canada's residential schools says at least 4,100 children died of neglect at the government-funded schools, which were operated by several Christian denominations. 

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

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 25, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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