YESTERDAY, JANUARY 25, 2022, the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) released its preliminary results of their first phase of investigations into St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School. The school operated from for nearly 90 years from 1886 until 1981, during which time, thousands of children from local and distant First Nations attended.
Williams Lake First Nation held an hour-long press conference to announce their results. The meeting was chaired by WLFN Chief Willie Sellars. To start, he explained what supports were available to those present and those watching, including both traditional supports such as the sacred fire, and contemporary supports such as counsellors.
Also present were some of the band’s council members, the band chief administrative officer, and the project leader. Other council members were at a separate location to provide support to band members and others. He invited three women to open the meeting with prayers and a song, so that the meeting would happen “in a good way.”
The report started with Sellars presenting the history of the St. Joseph’s school. Sellars spoke of the trauma and hardship endured by children. He remembered some of the individual children who died at the school by name and recognized a band member who died by suicide on the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, 2021.
Project manager Whitney Spearing presented the report’s findings. In their investigation, WLFN reviewed archival records, interviewed residential school survivors, and conducted surveys of the site using remote sensing technologies such as LIDAR and ground penetrating radar. The archival records and stories from the survivors guided the areas which were searched.
The grounds of the old school, and companion ranch operated by the school, are over 440 hectares. Of this, 14 hectares were searched. Within the search area, evidence of 93 burials has been found.
Throughout Sellars’ presentation, concern for current survivors, their families and community, was foremost. He spoke of the degradation the students endured, including starvation and torture, and of their families’ efforts to have their children returned and kept safe.
He recalled the diseases the children contracted such as tuberculous. He talked about the wider community’s complicity, such as the RCMP and coroner not investigating known deaths of children, and of adjacent ranchers complaining of the slave-like conditions of the children working at the school’s ranch, not because of the harm to the children, but because it was unfair competition for their ranches.
At the end of the presentation, Sellars spoke of a way forward. He spoke of both truth and reconciliation, and of healing for the survivors and their families. He asked that the wider community recognize the harm that was done.
The press conference concluded with prayers, songs, and drumming.
There were 139 Indian Residential Schools in Canada, where an estimated 150,000 children attended over a span of about 100 years. What happened in Williams Lake, happened again and again in other communities. Indian Residential Schools are not ancient history. I went to school at the same time St. Joseph’s was operating. My First Nation contemporaries could well have attended this school or other residential schools.
Chief Sellars and Williams Lake First Nation have done the heavy lifting. They have taken the time and care to help give closure to families, and to hold those who ran the schools to account.
Now is the time for the settler community to take ownership as well. A very small step seen this week was City of Kamloops announcing City funded services delivered by Kamloops Aboriginal Friendship Society for homeless individuals. The services would include Indigenous cultural programming and traditional meals.
It is also time for the settler community to shine light on itself, to own up to the ways it supported the 100 years or more of residential schools. The Indian Residential schools operated in plain sight of settler towns. Just as the WLFN took time to examine their archives and interview survivors, settler communities should take the time to shed light as well. It is not just for First Nations to reclaim the past, but for settler communities to take ownership of what happened.
A huge thanks to Chief Sellars and Williams Lake First Nation for their work moving us all closer to truth and reconciliation, and a deep appreciation for the care they have shown to the survivors of residential schools and their families.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.