WARNING: Some readers may find details in this story disturbing. Discretion is advised.
The Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, along with the Catholic Archdiocese, will be launching an investigation into a former residential school in North Vancouver.
Khelsilem (Dustin Rivers), the spokesperson for the Squamish Nation Council, said Tuesday morning this work is about protecting and helping survivors of the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School.
The investigation will include looking at who attended the school, what happened there, and who did not make it home, as well as any unmarked or undocumented burial sites.
“This work is very important,” said Chief Jen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose father attended the school.
“To think of that, that wasn’t even that long ago and if he didn’t survive, I wouldn’t be here.”
The St. Paul’s Indian Residential School operated from 1889 to 1959 and was the only residential school in Metro Vancouver.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, students from the following bands attended the IRS: Burrard #3; Musqueam; Nanaimo; Squamish; Squamish River; Creekside; Squamish #1 (Mission Reserve); Squamish #5 (Capilano Reserve); Mount Currie; Cape Mudge; Skwah; Chehalis; Chilliwack; and Burrard.
The Government of Canada was responsible for funding the school, which was managed and operated by the Roman Catholic Religious Teaching Order, the Sisters of the Child Jesus.
The Nations said more than 2,000 Indigenous children, representing six generations of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ Nations, (Coast Salish Lands of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh), and other Indigenous communities, were institutionalized at St. Paul’s from grades one through eight.
They said many of those children were then relocated to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains of at least 215 children were confirmed this May. Oral histories told by St. Paul’s survivors include stories about children who disappeared.
According to public records, 12 unidentified students died while attending St. Paul’s between 1904 and 1913. The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw’s goal (Squamish Nation) with the investigation of the former residential school site, located within Squamish unceded territory, is to find the location of each of these children and bring them home to rest.
“It’s important to note that our People’s experiences with St. Paul’s Indian Residential School are well known and healing is needed to move forward. This work is being done to respect and address both known and unknown knowledge, and is a critical part of reconciliation,” Khelsilem said.
Records kept by the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC said the school was described as a “death trap” and a “fire trap” by the Indian Commissioner for British Columbia in 1933.
In addition, two pupils were hospitalized with smallpox in 1929. In 1931, the local Indian Agent reported after an inspection that he suspected the children at Squamish were not being fed properly.
In 1935, the school was the site of a chickenpox epidemic and according to these records, it was very overcrowded in the 1950s.
James Borkowski, from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, said Tuesday morning that church members have worked with members of the Squamish Nation over the past few months.
“We are grateful to the Squamish Nation for allowing us to collaborate in a small way,” he said. “We have much to learn and act on as we hear from the nations and community members in this journey of truth and reconciliation related to the church’s historic and damaging role with residential schools.”
There have been several announcements recently about human remains found on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada.
In mid-July, it was revealed the Penelakut Tribe found more than 160 undocumented and unmarked graves at the site of the Kuper Island Indian Residental School, located on what is now called Penelakut Island, in the B.C. Southern Gulf Islands.
Following the announcement about the unmarked and undocumented graves at the Kamloops Residential School, it was revealed hundreds of remains were found in Brandon, Man., Saskatchewan’s Cowessess First Nation and Cranbrook, B.C.
To date, the number of remains reported to be found across the country totals well over 1,000.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.