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B.C. First Nation discovers 93 potential graves at former residential school

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Warning: This story contains disturbing details.

A British Columbia First Nation has announced the grim discovery of 93 potential burial sites on the grounds of a former residential school.

According to the Williams Lake First Nation, a recent geophysical survey, which included ground-penetrating radar, revealed the existence of potential remains.

“For decades there were reports of neglect and abuse at the St. Joseph's Mission, and worse, there were reports of children dying or disappearing from the facility,” Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said at an emotional press conference Tuesday afternoon. “For the bulk of St. Joseph's Mission’s history, these reports were at best given no credence.”

Located in B.C.’s central interior, the St. Joseph's Mission Residential School operated near Williams Lake between 1891 and 1981. It has since largely been demolished.

The findings from the school are considered preliminary, and more information is expected as the ongoing investigation continues. So far, only 14 out of 470 hectares on the sprawling property have been searched, including the former school’s cemetery, where less than half of the potential graves were found.

“This journey has led our investigation team into the darkest recesses of human behaviour,” Sellars said. “Our team has recorded not only stories regarding 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 also noted that the investigation uncovered unheeded complaints about conditions at the school as well as evidence of children’s bodies being disposed of in lakes, rivers and the school’s incinerator, including priests’ unwanted babies.

“For those children there will be no headstone, no unmarked grave, no small fragment of bone to be forensically analyzed,” Sellars said. “For those families there will be no closure. It is for those children and families that we grieve the most.”

The investigation is being led by archaeologist Whitney Spearing. At the press conference, Spearing said 50 of the 93 potential graves were not associated with the school’s cemetery.

“All of them display varying characteristics indicative of potential human burials,” Spearing explained. “It must be emphasized that no geophysical investigation can provide certainty into the presence of human remains. Excavation is the only technique that will provide answers as to whether human remains are present.”

The Williams Lake investigation follows the gruesome May 2021 discovery of 200 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Since then, similar searches have resulted in the shocking discoveries of hundreds more across Canada.

“We know these things happened as First Nations people,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in an interview with CTV’s Power Play Thursday. “We know the truth, and now everybody else gets to understand that truth with us.”

Archibald visited the site of the Williams Lake school in October and believes more graves will be found.

“It’s a huge area, there are many parts of that land where children could be buried,” she said from Vancouver. “There’s going to be more recoveries for certain there, and there will be recoveries across Canada.”

Speaking to Power Play, federal Crown–Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said that “as more discoveries are inevitably made,” the government will continue to offer support and documentation to investigations like the one in Williams Lake.

“As this information continues to shock the conscience of Canadian and Indigenous peoples living in Canada, we’ll be there every step of the way,” Miller said Thursday, “Let’s not forget that Canada together with the Church is responsible for this.”

Approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend the boarding schools from the late 1800s, with the aim of replacing Indigenous languages and culture with English and Christian beliefs. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.

“The abuses suffered at St. Joseph's Mission and other institutions are not forgotten footnotes of the past,” Sellars said at the press conference. “The horrors that occurred inside walls of St. Joseph's Mission are still very real for those who lived them.”

“What we’re talking about is the horrors that happened to children, and those children need to be found and named,” Archibald said. “We have to make sure that each time we go through this process, that we’re moving on the road to healing, on what I always call the healing path forward.”

With files from The Canadian Press​

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

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