Williams Lake First Nation announces 93 possible burial sites at former residential school

Prince George Citizen [Prince George, BC, CA]

January 25, 2022

By Hanna Petersen

First Nation Leadership Council is calling for support for the Williams Lake First Nation

Williams lake First Nation has announced its findings of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school.

In a January 25 press conference, the Williams Lake First Nation announced a recent geophysical survey, which included ground-penetrating radar, revealed the existence of an estimated 93 graves.

St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School operated near Williams Lake between 1886 and 1981.

“This journey has led our investigation team into the darkest recesses of human behaviour,” Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie 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.”

The findings from the school are considered preliminary, and more information is expected as the investigation continues.

The investigation has searched only 14 out of 470 hectares of the property thus far.

Sellars also noted that their investigation uncovered evidence of children’s bodies being disposed of in lakes, rivers and the school’s incinerator.  

“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,” said Sellars. “For the bulk of St. Joseph’s Mission’s history, these reports were at best given no credence.”

The First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) has issued a statement calling for support for the Williams Lake First Nation.

FNLC notes there have already been a number of confirmed deaths of children at the Mission, as well as many cases of abuse by the school’s staff that have resulted in criminal charges.

“We know from stories from survivors that thousands of children died while attending these so-called schools,” said Regional Chief Terry Teegee, BC Assembly of First Nations.

“Ground penetrating radar is finally allowing us the ability to locate where many of them are buried, and helps give their families and communities closure. We commend and recognize Williams Lake First Nation in undertaking critical, emotionally taxing, and (re)traumatizing work related to burials at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential school site and we stand in support as they undertake this important work.”

Robert Phillips of the First Nations Summit Political Executive said they hold their hands up to the Williams Lake First Nation for sharing their preliminary report findings and providing an overview of the very important work ahead for their community as they search for the lost children buried at the former site of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.

“Most importantly, we hold our hands up to the elders and knowledge keepers who have assisted by sharing their traumatic memories,” said Philips. 

“Thousands of unmarked burials have been uncovered across Canada over the past several months. Each and every one of these lost children from the horrific Indian Residential School system deserve recognition, remembrance and a chance to be found, no matter how long it takes. We once again call on the federal and provincial governments to continue providing the necessary resources for each and every First Nation in Canada that had an Indian Residential School in their traditional territory, to undertake the important work of finding the lost children.”

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, UBCIC Secretary-Treasurer, concluded, “Today is another somber day and are our hearts are with all survivors and their families. UBCIC continues to stand with Williams Lake First Nation, Tk’eml ps te Secw pemc and all other Nations currently undertaking the painful, traumatizing task of identifying and honouring stolen children. The Government of Canada and the Roman Catholic Church have ultimately failed to document and protect the deceased children of the residential schools, and it is up to them to achieve accountability, reparations, and supports for residential school survivors and all those impacted by the atrocities of the past.”

For support for Residential School Survivors or others who are impacted by these difficult findings, please reach out to the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or www.irsss.ca