By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – The shíshálh Nation located on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast has discovered what could be 40 unmarked graves on or near the site of the former St. Augustine’s Residential School.
The nation, which has now completed the first two phases of its investigation, said in a statement that the discovery confirms the accounts of elders and survivors.
“As more communities search for answers and share results, I urge you not to lose sight of the devastation and the impacts,” Chief Lenora Joe (hiwus yalxwemult) said in a video statement.
“I ask you to not focus on the numbers. Not all of the missing children have been found, and many will never be found.”
The nation says it’s working with the University of Saskatchewan to find the remains of the children who never returned from St. Augustine’s, which is located in Sechelt, B.C.
The institution was operated by the Catholic Church from 1904 to 1975.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), parents withdrew their children from the school in 1923 to protest the poor quality of education, harsh discipline, and inadequate diet. This resulted in the appointment of a new principal and increased school funding.
The NCTR identifies five students who died at the school, all of whom died after 1923:
- Simon Francis Jeffries (1935)
- George Freddie George (1936)
- Joe Moses (1937)
- Stephanie Joe (1965)
- Rawley Isadore Dan (1974)
But children from 51 other Nations were forced to attend St. Augustine’s, according to Joe.
Terry Clark, a University of Saskatchewan historian, told CBC News he expects more remains to be found as the investigation enters its third phase.
The preliminary findings were the result of a search with ground penetrating radar, but Clark told the Coast Reporter that because the land in question has been developed over the years, the radar likely missed some remains, emphasizing the importance of testimony.
The graves were so shallow that children had to be buried in a fetal position, Joe said.
“We have heard accounts of children being forced to dig graves and bury their friends, siblings, and cousins. Take a moment to let that sink in,” she said.
The shíshálh Nation announced its intention to investigate the former site of St. Augustine’s in February 2022.
Joe emphasized the importance of privacy for the families and survivors who are grieving the discovery.
“Some survivors have never spoken about their experiences. An innocent question to you, might be a triggering and offensive question to others. Please don’t ask,” she said.
“I understand the curiosity, but for now we want to pause, stand still, and reflect. For the children we have found ‘We are going to let them rest right now.’”
This article contains content that may cause trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. A National Indian Residential School Support line 1-866-925-4419 is available for emotional and crisis referral support services to minimize the risk associated with triggering.