Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
An initial sweep of the former grounds of St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., has uncovered 93 possible burial sites.
Williams Lake First Nation Kúkpi7 Willie Sellars and councillors released the first-phase geophysical findings Tuesday, after launching its land survey with ground-penetrating radar in June.
“This journey has led our investigation team into the darkest recesses of human behaviour,” said Sellars. “Our team has recorded not only stories involving the murder and disappearance of children and infants, they have listened to countless stories of systematic torture, starvation, rape and sexual assault of children at St. Joseph’s Mission.”
The findings were shared with the chiefs of all impacted nations ahead of time in a private meeting earlier on Tuesday — a “critical milestone” in the path to reconciliation, said Sellars.
The 93 possible burial sites are “reflections” or anomalies detected by ground-penetrating radar. Excavation is required to confirm whether they are human remains.
St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981 and has since been demolished. An additional property, the Onward Ranch, was added in 1964 to support the operational needs of the school. The sites were predominantly run by the Roman Catholic missionaries.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one student died of exposure after trying to escape St. Joseph’s in 1902. Another died and eight others became ill after eating poisonous water hemlock, which parents believed was a response to discipline at the school.
The First Nation’s investigation, which included deep archival research and extensive interviews with survivors and descendants, also uncovered harrowing stories of gang rape, child molestation, confinement, exposure to extreme conditions, intentional starvation and beatings to the point of unconsciousness. The school also employed child slave labour through the ranch, said Sellars.
“The initial operation of the mission was an industrial school where First Nations’ pupils performed labour-intensive tasks, including serving white children and staff, timber-splitting, cattle-rearing, farming and sewing,” he said.
“There were reports of children dying or disappearing from the facilities. For the bulk of St. Joseph’s Mission history, these reports were, at best, given no credence. At worst, there was something darker going on and an effort to suppress the emergence of the truth.”
In the 1980s and 90s, writes the centre, two former staff pleaded guilty to charges related to sexually abusing students.
Williams Lake First Nation is still conducting its investigation of the site. Tuesday’s results were based on scans of 14 square hectares of land around the former school, its barns, and other areas of interest identified through interviews and archival research. There are 480 hectares of land connected to the former school’s operation.
Sellars said it’s clear from survivors’ stories that there are still children unaccounted for even after this initial geophysical sweep: “Their bodies were cast into the river, left at the bottom of lakes, tossed like garbage into incinerators.”
“The abuses suffered at St. Joseph’s Mission and other institutions are not forgotten footnotes of the past,” he said. “The horrors that occurred inside walls of St. Joseph’s Mission are still very real for those who live them in the legacy of these atrocities and is still readily apparent in the numerous ways that intergenerational trauma manifests in First Nation communities.”
The findings are the latest of many residential school searches that have taken in place since last year, forcing Canadians to reckon with the insidious violence of colonization.
In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc sent shockwaves of grief and anger across the country when it announced the remains of 215 children had been found in an unmarked burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The following month, the federal government pledged $27 million to help Indigenous communities locate the remains of children who died at residential schools.
Other First Nations searched their own former residential school sites with ground-penetrating radar, which revealed more than 1,000 other children had been buried. The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan alone located 751 children.
Between the 1800s and mid-1990s, Canada’s residential school system aimed to “eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development” of Indigenous children, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The state- and church-run institutions removed more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and imprisoned them in schools where many were physically, sexually and spiritually abused.
Some were also starved as part of scientific experiments on the effects of malnutrition. Many became ill with smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis and other unknown illnesses due to lack of proper care.
Thousands died and many parents were never told what happened to their children. The harrowing system of assimilation created intergenerational trauma that has had a deep and lasting impact on survivors, their children, relations and communities.
In 2015, the commission found Canada guilty of “cultural genocide,” and to this day, governments have failed in many ways to meaningfully repair or compensate for the lasting harm.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.