By Jeremy Appel
(ANNews) – Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) in British Columbia says the second phase of its geophysical investigation at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School has uncovered 66 potential unmarked graves.
The first phase of the investigation using ground penetrating radar uncovered 93 potential gravesites last year.
“WLFN emphasizes that no geophysical investigation can provide absolute certainty as to the presence of human remains, and that excavation of these reflection areas would be required to make a definitive determination,” states a news release from the nation announcing the most recent findings cautions.
Just 34 hectares of the 782-hectare site has been investigated thus far.
WLFN Chief Willie Sellars said band leadership will “continue to work diligently and collaboratively with survivors and their families, our neighbouring First Nation communities and their members, the federal and provincial governments, and the private landowners” to investigate the rest of the grounds.
“This is a very complicated, stressful and emotionally draining process so we want to continue to conduct this investigation in as positive and supportive a way as possible,” he added.
“WLFN remains committed to seeking resolution and truth for those survivors and families who have lost children through the residential school system at St. Joseph’s Mission.”
Whitney Spearing, who worked alongside the WLFN investigation team, told CBC News they were able to confirm the deaths of 28 children at the facility, but the Truth and Reconciliation Memorial Register lists just 16.
“It is also clear that many of the children and infant babies born at the mission as a product of child sexual assault were disposed of through incineration on and off-site at the mission,” she said.
Citing death records, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says 4,100 children were killed at residential schools, but the centre acknowledges the true figure is likely much higher.
Sellars told the public broadcaster that he’s identified 48 First Nations whose children were forced to attend St. Joseph’s, which opened in 1891. Beginning as an industrial school, it expanded in 1964 to incorporate nearby Onward Ranch. Most of the institution’s buildings were torn down after it closed in 1981.
Sellars said there could be children buried in the area surrounding the ranch, which will be examined in phase three.
With the discovery of more unmarked graves comes mixed emotions from survivors.
“There are some of us that feel a bit triggered, but myself? I think … it’s good to show the world what happened to us,” Grant Alphonse, who was forced to attend St. Joseph’s in the 1970s, told the CBC.
“By doing this, it exposes the damages that have been done to our people … so for the people that are ignorant of that, [they] are now going to be learning by these findings … that is a positive thing.”
To commemorate the recent discoveries, the nation hosted a Sacred Fire from the afternoon of Jan. 25 to the evening of Jan. 26, which concluded with a feast, traditional dancing and playing Lahal.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.