Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset some readers. Discretion is advised.
An official apology from the Canadian government was issued on Sunday to the Williams Lake First Nation due to the “unlawful and wrongful actions” that separated the First Nation from their village lands.
A press conference was held by the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree and Chief Willie Sellars in Williams Lake.
“The Government of Canada accepts responsibility for this historic injustice and expresses its deep regret and sincere apology to the First Nation for the harms suffered,” Anandasangaree said.
Following the apology, the two announced that the First Nation and the Government of Canada have reached a settlement agreement to resolve the “Williams Lake First Nation Village Site Specific Claim.”
“This apology and negotiated settlement is a step toward a renewed relationship with the community and one that was necessary in order for Canada to be an honest and accountable Treaty partner,” Anandasangaree said.
Under the settlement, Canada has provided the Williams Lake First Nation with $135 million in total compensation. As part of the agreement, Williams Lake First Nation has the option to acquire and seek up to 1,400 acres to add to its reserve.
“The Williams Lake First Nation has worked hard to have this terrible wrong corrected. Our ancestors were driven from a village site our people have used for millennia,” Chief Willie Sellars said.
“We took this matter to the Supreme Court of Canada to make sure Canada took responsibility for how badly our people were treated when our village lands were wrongfully taken from us.
Reaching the settlement agreement with Canada and establishing the Williams Lake Community Trust for current and future members of WLFN, is a very important achievement for our community, and a significant milestone in the path to reconciliation with Canada.”
Also recently, the Williams Lake First Nation assumed ownership of the grounds of the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, an institution of assimilation that operated in the Cariboo region for nearly a century.
The First Nation and B.C. government bought the 13.7-acre property for $1.2 million from its private owners, with $849,000 coming from the province.
Like all residential schools, St. Joseph’s history is laden with sickening violence. Children from more than 40 First Nations were sent to there to be stripped of their Indigenous languages, cultures and identities.
The institution operated from 1891 to 1981 and has since been demolished.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one child 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.
In the 1980s and ’90s, two former staff pleaded guilty to charges related to sexually abusing students.
Williams Lake First Nation, however, has since unearthed other horrifying findings through its archival research and interviews with survivors and their descendants: Harrowing stories of gang rape, child molestation, confinement, exposure to extreme conditions, intentional starvation, slave labour and beatings to the point of unconsciousness.
Through ground-penetrating radar sweeps, the First Nation has detected 159 possible burial sites on the grounds.
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.
– With files from Elizabeth McSheffrey