93 Unmarked Graves Found at Residential School That Targeted Indigenous Children

The investigation also uncovered testimonies of brutal treatment, including starvation and sexual assault, that non-Indigenous authorities repeatedly ignored.

Jan 25 2022, 9:55pm

A First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, has detected 93 “reflections,” or possible unmarked graves, at a former residential school—the latest in a nationwide search.

On Tuesday, Williams Lake First Nation of the Secwepemc Nation, located in interior B.C., about 300 km north of Kamloops, announced preliminary findings from its eight-month investigation at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School grounds and surrounding areas.

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Research has uncovered stories of murder, systemic torture, starvation, rape, and sexual assault at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, as well as the death of an 8-year-old boy, Duncan Sticks, who had tried to run away, said Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars.

Children suffered rotten food, fire hazards, overcrowding, pests, and illness, and there were reports of students trying to die by suicide, Sellars said, with non-Indigenous authorities opting not to investigate as the “child was only an Indian.”

Clergy that served were tried and convicted of sexual crimes against children in the 1990s. At the time, new victims came forward to RCMP, but police refused to look into the new complaints, Sellars said. 

“Child pregnancies were widespread and covered up,” Sellars said. “In survivors’ accounts that are disturbing beyond words, we’ve heard accounts that unwanted babies of priests were burned in the incinerator.” 

Sellars said that the 93 detected reflections won’t include the remains lost because of incineration or drowning.

St. Joseph’s Mission operated as a residential school from 1891 until it closed in 1981, with children from all over, including Williams Lake First Nation, forced to attend. It was run in part by the same Catholic order that ran the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where about 200 unmarked graves were detected in May 2021. 

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First Nations pupils performed labour-intensive tasks, including serving white students, Sellars said, adding there were several reports of children dying or disappearing from the facility.

“The real story of what occurred has been intentionally obscured. There is clear evidence that religious entities, federal government, and the RCMP have knowingly participated in destruction of records and cover-up,” Sellars said. 

“There can be no reconciliation before there is truth,” Sellars said. But “while there is hope that we can heal as a nation, the trauma of individuals and communities is still very much present.”

Sellars also called any misinformation about or attempts to pacify the horrific things that went on at residential schools “distorted.”

Efforts to reconcile must be through leadership of First Nations people and communities, Sellars said. Today, the provincial and federal governments have committed to support Williams Lake First Nation’s ongoing investigation.

The First Nation has so far used ground-penetrating radar and consultation with survivors as part of its scan to detect the 93 unmarked graves. It’s also pursuing archival research and relying on other technologies. 

Last May, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed hundreds of unmarked graves at the Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds. So far, more than 4,000 unmarked graves have been confirmed and experts expect the figure to climb to at least 10,000.

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The government and churches ran residential “schools” across Canada to forcibly assimilate 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. Children were physically and sexually abused, and brutally punished for expressing their Indigenous identities, including speaking in their mother tongues. Its legacy continues to harm Indigenous children in the foster care system who are sometimes forcibly removed from their communities. 

Last week, the federal government agreed to give 875,000 residential school-related records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and promised to look for more. It’s a move that could help Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc identify the people buried in Kamloops, CBC reported.

"Access to the records means not having to re-traumatize... residential school survivors to pinpoint information about who attended KIRS and who could possibly be in the unmarked graves,” Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told CBC News.

Several records related to St. Joseph’s are still missing, including some student registries.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has demanded an in-person apology from Pope Francis for the Catholic Church’s outsized role in the residential school system—an act of accountability that is yet to happen. Indigenous delegates were supposed to meet the pope in December, but the meet-up was delayed because of Omicron. 

Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066). It’s available 24/7.

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter. 

Tagged:

British Columbia, Indigenous, RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS, Canadian News, boarding schools, unmarked graves, worldnews, Williams Lake First Nation

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