WARNING: This story contains disturbing details
A First Nation in British Columbia has announced the discovery of at least 66 new potential graves at the site of an old residential school.
Williams Lake First Nation on Wednesday released the results of a yearlong investigation and geophysical survey of the St. Joseph, located about 15 km south of Lake Williams, BC
Police Chief Willie Sellars told CTV National News: “It’s disappointing, but at the same time we’re looking for the truth and putting together the history and legacy of that school and the extent of the damage it caused. go out.
The preliminary findings mark the second time anomalies have been found on the grounds of the former boarding school. Last January, ground-penetrating radar, along with ground-based LiDAR (Light Detection and Positioning) helped investigators identify 93 possible burial sites on a small plot of land. Similar techniques were used in this latest investigation.
“We have since continued to work with our engineering team and contractors to look for more land anomalies,” said Sellars, who served as Lake Williams First Country Director since 2018, said. “We have also collected and analyzed historical documents, while collecting the stories of our survivors.”
Joseph’s Mission is seen in this undated documentary photo. (Handout of the First Country at Lake Williams)
The Missionary Boarding School of St. Joseph, operating from 1886 to 1981, was first run by Catholic missionaries and then by the federal government.
There have long been allegations of abuse and neglect related to nursing homes, as well as allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Since the closure, most of the school buildings have been demolished and the land is now privately owned.
Sellars describes St. Joseph’s is a dark place that has been a “detonator” for many in his community.
“The extent of abuse that has taken place is well documented and when you look at the extent of trauma that has been caused, whether it is direct or intergenerational trauma, we continue to aim to disrupt,” he said. break that cycle”.
Williams Lake First Nation prepares to hold a press conference at headquarters, January 25, 2023. (Melanie Nagy/CTV National News)
The findings of what is known as “Phase 2” of the investigation were shared for the first time with leaders from neighboring communities, whose children were forced to attend school. Once that caucus is complete, the results are publicly revealed during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
Whitney Spearing, who led the investigation, said that the new anomalies “reveal features that suggest potentially human remains.”
She also said that to support fieldwork, archives directly related to the facility were recovered and reviewed.
Extensive interviews with survivors have also been conducted, and investigators say they have heard stories of disappearances, systematic torture and rape.
“Critical missing pieces of information were removed as part of the interviewing process with survivors, including historical accounts of students, staff, and mission operations,” Spearing said.
Grant Alphonse, a member of the Tsilhqot’in Nation and boarding school survivor, sings and drums a traditional song in honor of the lost children of the St. Joseph. (Melanie Nagy/CTV National News)
Grant Alphonse, a member of the neighboring Nation of Tsilhqot’in, was forced to study at St. Joseph’s in 1976 at the age of 13.
“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been tied up so many times and beaten so many times that I can’t remember,” Alphonse said in a live interview with CTV National News.
Although he only spent a few years at the facility, Alphonse says his time there changed him forever. Before entering the residential system, he lived with his parents, who followed the traditional Tsilhqot’in way and maintained their livelihood by hunting, fishing and gathering.
“The day I entered the system and watched my father leave, I suddenly panicked. I was in so much pain.”
He said his father did not want to enroll him, but his mother, who also attended the school, feared that the family would be arrested by the RCMP if they did not follow the rules.
“So I went to school where I was forced to speak English and not my Tsilhqot’in,” said Alphonse. Nor can I beat the drums or sing my people’s songs or practice any traditions from my culture.”
Upon arriving at the establishment, Alphonse recalls being fed rancid food like moldy bread. He also said that random men, including a hitchhiker, would be allowed to stay at the school with some even working on-site.
“I remember the hitchhiker was there for a few weeks and he would tease and tickle the boys I knew. He would also harass them and touch them everywhere. I realized that so I must stay away from this character.”
Along with allegations of abuse, Alphonse said the focus of the school was on destroying the identity of Indigenous children.
“The longer you stay away from your parents and don’t go back to your land, the more alien you become and that’s how they want to be,” says Alphonse.
Despite the horrors, he says he’s worked hard to stay true to his traditional ways. He is now well known in his community and a strong advocate of the Tsilhqot’in language and culture.
“We really need to decolonize and figure out who we are and where we come from,” he said. “We need to be proud of our identity and proud to be the First Nations to deal with our sovereign way.”
Alphonse believes the discoveries, like those of the Williams Lake First Nation, are an important step toward healing.
“The more we discover, the more we learn, and the more we can break down racism because it is ignorance that leads to discrimination.”
About 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children have been separated from their families and forced to attend boarding and day schools since the late 1800s. Canada’s last boarding school closed in 1996.
“We are continuing to have these tough discussions as a reality check for this country and to think about how we can continue this healing journey with support,” Sellars said. not with judgment or skepticism.”
As for St. Joseph’s former site, the next step in the investigation will involve further analysis of the collected data to cross-reference the stories of the elders and survivors.
Last March, during a visit to Williams Lake First Nation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $2.9 million in federal funding to support the investigation.
As for whether to excavate the anomalies found to confirm the presence of human remains, Sellars said a decision has not yet been made.
“We will never know 100 per cent whether they are really unmarked graves until the excavation has taken place. Will we go there? I think we will eventually. do, but that will require a broader discussion with all communities affected by St. Joseph’s.”
If you are a former boarding school student struggling, or impacted by the boarding school system, and need help, you can contact the Boarding School’s 24-hour Crisis Line at 1 -866-925-4419, or The Survivors Society’s Toll-Free Indian Boarding School at 1-800-721-0066.
Additional mental health support and Indigenous resources are available here.