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66 more potential burial sites discovered at former B.C. residential school

January 25, 2023

Williams Lake First Nations has revealed the results of phase 2 of its search

A B.C. First Nation has announced the discovery of another 66 potential graves at the site of a former residential school, on top of the more than 90 discovered last year at the same site.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

CBC News: The lead investigator for a B.C. First Nations has announced its ongoing probe has revealed at least 28 children died on the grounds of a former residential school and identified 66 more potential burial sites.

Whitney Spearing, along with the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) investigation team, spent the last year interviewing survivors, gathering documents and surveying approximately 0.18 square kilometres of the grounds of the former St. Joseph’s Mission site. She said the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register lists 16 children as dying at the facility, but their investigation shows at least 28

Spearing said many of these children were buried at the mission in unmarked graves. “It is also clear that many of the children and infant babies born at the mission as a product of child sexual assault were disposed of through incineration on and off-site at the mission.”

The phase 2 results used ground penetrating radar technologies to identify more possible burial locations, bringing the total number on the grounds to 159. 

Three people walk across the top of a grassy hill on an overcast day.
People walk on the former grounds of St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, on March 30, 2022. In January, the Williams Lake First Nation announced it had identified 93 ‘reflections’ that could indicate the number of bodies buried around the site of the former residential school. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The First Nation announced last January a preliminary geophysical investigation had found 93 “reflections” that could indicate bodies buried around the site of the former residential school. 

The sites were identified using ground-penetrating radar, along with aerial and terrestrial LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors. “A lot of work remains ahead of us,” Kúkpi7 Willie Sellars said at a news conference. He said only a small part of the 7.82 square kilometre property has been scanned using ground-penetrating radar technologies.

Many WLFN members were forced to attend St. Joseph’s, which opened in 1891. It began as an industrial school and later grew to include Onward Ranch, which was acquired in 1964 to sustain the school.

Phase three of the investigation will look at areas of interest around the ranch.  Security measures and patrols are in place in and around the mission site to ensure that any evidence or human remains are protected.

Working with surrounding communities

Sellars said the WLFN has identified 48 nations that had children who attended the residential school. He said his community will work with those nations to talk about next steps, including the potential of excavation and exhumation. “By working together, we’re confident that we’ll be able to hold each other up through this process.”

He said they are seeking funding from the provincial and federal government to cover “the remaining phases of geophysical work and the potential in excavation and exhumation in the phase one and two areas.”

Ground-penetrating radar is being used by Indigenous communities to pinpoint unmarked graves near former residential school sites. Here’s everything you need to know about the technology behind these discoveries.

Sellars said while this is difficult to consider, excavation is the only way to know for sure that anomalies discovered are actually human remains.  Whether or not communities will pursue this route will depend on decisions within affected nations. Some people are welcoming the greater discussions brought on by these revelations.

“There are some of us that feel a bit triggered, but myself? I think … it’s good to show the world what happened to us,” said Grant Alphonse, who was forced into the institution in the 1970s. “By doing this, it exposes the damages that have been done to our people … so for the people that are ignorant of that, [they] are now going to be learning by these findings … that is a positive thing.”

Third-generation residential school survivor Grant Alphonse says people have previously been unwilling to talk about the horrors they experienced in the facilities.
Revelations of unmarked burial sites leads to healing, residential school survivor says

Most of the school buildings have been torn down since the school was closed in 1981.

More than 150,000 children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the final school closed in 1997. The institutions were created by the Canadian federal government to assimilate Indigenous people, in part by forcibly separating children from their parents.

St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, located near the core of the Williams Lake First Nation community, was torn down 26 years ago, but left a painful legacy for survivors and their families. (Indian Residential School Resources)

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) said around 4,100 children died at the schools, based on death records, but notes the true total is likely much higher. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to the institutions never returned home.

The WLFN will have the option for people to access sweat lodge ceremonies and visit a sacred fire that’s burning until the evening of Jan. 28, 2023. After the closing ceremony, the community will host a feast and cultural games. It’s also created an Emergency Emotional and Spiritual Health Resource Guide to help community members cope with the results of the investigation. 

People gather around a sacred fire following the Williams Lake First Nation's announcement of Phase 2 findings.
People gather around a sacred fire following the Williams Lake First Nation’s announcement of Phase 2 findings. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from Bethany Lindsay, Brady Strachan and The Canadian Press