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‘93 is our number’: Williams Lake First Nation releases findings in residential school probe

‘Many children will remain unaccounted for,’ investigators find
Williams Lake First Nation announced the preliminary findings of the probe at former residential school, St. Joseph’s Mission on Tuesday, Jan. 25. (Williams Lake Tribune Facebook live image)

Warning: The details in this announcement may be triggering. Supports are available at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) at 1-800-721-0066.

The preliminary findings of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School Investigation have revealed 93 potential graves that require further analysis, as well as a dark history of cover-up and abuse.

That was some of the information given by an emotional Williams Lake First Nations Chief Willie Sellars, who was supported by his council Tuesday (Jan. 25) as he outlined some of the history that has come to light over the past nine months during the initial investigation of a 14-hectare parcel of land at the St. Joseph’s Mission site.

“Ninety-three is our number,” Sellars said.

The difficult work focused on areas of the mission around the school building, barn and corrals as well as portions of the nearby Onward Ranch and railroad right-of-way in the San Jose Valley and found 93 ‘reflections,’ which are consistent with graves using ground penetrating radar (GPR).

Sellars said the real story of what occurred at the St. Joseph’s Mission has been intentionally obscured for generations, noting the investigation, which included interviews with survivors as well as poring over historical documents, has revealed “clear evidence that religious entities, the federal government and the RCMP have knowingly participated in the destruction of records, and the cover-up of criminal allegations.”

“This journey has led our investigation team into the darkest recesses of human behaviour. 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.”

Sellars said survivors have recounted memories of an instructor being hired at the school to be a disciplinarian, with children being beaten until they lost consciousness, forcible confinement to the wall of the barn, intentional starvation and exposure.

Sellars recalled that in 1902, three children ran away to escape the mission, and one eight-year-old boy named Duncan Sticks died of exposure. In 2021 a marker was placed where the little boy’s body was found near Felker Lake and a ceremony was held to remember him.

Further investigation showed terrible living conditions at the school and evidence that Indigenous families tried in vain to bring those conditions to light at the time.

“Nonetheless the conditions continued.”

In 1920 nine children attempted a mass suicide by eating water hemlock, and one boy named Augustine Allen died as a result.

Sellars said a Williams Lake resident once wrote to the school to complain he couldn’t compete with the “slave labour” at St. Joseph’s, but there was no investigation. Outbreaks of disease, bedbugs and lice were common.

“The WLFN investigation team is discovering just how deep the well of sexual abuse ran at St. Joseph’s Mission. The priests have been implicated during the investigation in numerous additional sexual assaults in children as young as seven years old. Stories of gang-rape and molestation have been part of the fabric of the institution’s history.”

Survivors gave testimony to the investigation that if a child’s name was called over the school intercom, they knew someone was about to be sexually assaulted. It was widely known among students that pregnancies were covered up.

“In survivor accounts that are disturbing beyond words, we have heard detailed descriptions of the unwanted babies of certain priests at St. Joseph’s burned in the incinerator. …

“At St. Joseph’s Mission, survivor stories tell us that many children will remain unaccounted for, even after our geophysical and archival work is complete. That is very scary, and disturbing. Their bodies were cast into the river, left at the bottom of lakes, tossed like garbage into incinerators. For those children there will be no headstone, no unmarked grave, no small fragment of bone to be forensically analyzed. For those families, there will be no closure. It is for those children and families that we grieve the most.”

Sellars said the horrors that occurred inside the walls of the St. Joseph’s Mission are still impacting the communities to this day. He revealed during the press conference that on the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in 2021, in the midst of an outpouring of support for Indigenous communities by Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, one of his own members died by suicide.

“We cannot afford to have another generation grow up without understanding the truth of the residential school system and the impact it has had on First Nation people. We need to heal.”

Sellars said the findings of the preliminary investigation are only a small snapshot of the work that will continue to be done. He said he feels hopeful that Canadians truly do want reconciliation and that the discovery of 215 children’s bodies buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021 initiated a “reawakening in Indian country” and a push toward truth and reconciliation.

He also, however, pointed out those who downplay the impacts of the residential school experience.

“There still remain those disbelievers. Those who would argue that there was somehow a good or benevolent underpinning of residential schools, and that this is significant justification to discount the horror and suffering that was inflicted on generations and generations of Indigenous people. Not only is this reasoning distorted and wrong, it also serves to compound the trauma that survivors and their families have experienced, and continue to experience to this day … We hope we have opened your minds.”

While the WLFN chief and council attended the press conference, chiefs of the six Tsilhqot’in nations were in their communities with sacred fires lit to support one another. WLFN also had supports in place in the community as well as their own sacred fire, which will stay burning until Friday, Jan. 28.

Orange Shirt Society founder Phyllis Webstad attended St. Joseph’s Mission as a child and it is where her orange shirt was taken on the first day of school. She issued a formal statement on the preliminary findings, as she spent time with family to process the announcement.

“I have often thought of this day. How will our families and communities ever get through today and the days and years to come? I grieve for all who never made it — the children who never made it home and for survivors and their families who could not keep carrying the pain. Today our truths, the truths we witnessed, the truths we have always known and told, are brought to light once again. The confirmation of children’s remains found at the Mission where three generations of my family attended is traumatizing, yet it also serves as validation of the stories told.”

Webstad said her thoughts and prayers are with the survivors and families from the Nations who attended the Mission, which included Secwépemc (Shuswap), Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin), St’at’imc (Lillooet), Dakelh (Southern Carrier) and Nuxalk (Bella Coola).

“I ask them to support and look after one another. We will get through this together. I am so grateful to survivors who told their stories, even when no one was listening. Survivors, always remember you matter, you are important. Continue to tell your truths and what you witnessed. The world is listening. Every child matters — past, present and future.”

Read More: WLFN chief prepares for former residential school investigation announcement

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