Potential remains found in 93 spots at B.C. residential school, but some children will be unaccounted for even after investigation
Warning: This article contains details that readers may find disturbing.
An initial report into an investigation at a former residential school in British Columbia suggests the remains of dozens of people may be buried at the site.
Preliminary results of a geophysical examination at the site of the former St. Joseph's Mission Residential School were released during a news conference Tuesday, and included 93 "reflections" observed through ground-penetrating radar.
A section of the first 14 hectares examined was also used as a cemetery at some point. Those involved in the investigation are working to understand how the burials correlate with the cemetery.
Current data suggests 50 of the 93 potential burials are not associated with known graves, meaning they may be unmarked graves associated with the school.
The only way to tell whether those sites do, in fact, contain human remains is exhumation, and next steps are still being discussed, but human remains, caskets and graves can all produce reflections, project lead Whitney Spearing said during a presentation on the initial findings.
The property located near the Williams Lake First Nation operated as a school between 1891 and 1981. The site went by several names during that time, including the Cariboo Indian Industrial School. A farm and ranch were added to the Catholic Oblates' holdings at the site in the 1960s, and were used to sustain the school and staff.
Thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend the school during that time.
Those behind Tuesday's presentation called it "one small snapshot" into the ongoing investigation, and that the results are preliminary at this stage. Research in Phase 1 included the geophysical examination as well as archival and photographic research and survivor interviews.
The plan for the school site is to search what's left of a 470-hectare area, and it's expected that zone may be expanded based on what is uncovered during further phases of the investigation.
Speaking about the investigation months earlier, Kukpi7 (Chief) Willie Sellars said it has been challenging for members, who are seeing old wounds reopened as they recount stories of abuse.
But he said in November that the information they've provided has been helpful to guide those involved in the technical aspects of the investigation.
On Tuesday, he said that those involved know that many children will remain unaccounted for even after the investigation is done.
Sellars said the bodies of some children were disposed of in rivers, lakes and incinerators.
He said for those children, there will be no headstones, no unmarked graves, no small fragments of bone to be forensically tested and, for their families, no closure.
"As is the case with many residential schools in Canada, the real story of what occurred at the St. Joseph's Mission has been intentionally obscured," Sellars said.
"There is clear evidence that religious entities, the federal government and the RCMP have knowingly participated in the destruction of records and the cover-up of criminal allegations."
He said there were decades of reports filed about neglect, abuse, deaths and disappearances at the school.
"For the bulk of St. Joseph's Mission history, these reports were at best given no credence. At worst, there was something darker going on in an effort to suppress the emergence of the truth."
At many of these schools, those who attended said they knew what went on but weren't believed.
Many Canadians weren't aware of these stories until a finding in May 2021, also at a B.C. residential school, that shocked the public and forced acknowledgement of the country's past.
CHILD'S RIB BONE PROMPTED FIRST SEARCH
The update comes after a discovery last year of what are believed to be approximately 200 unmarked graves on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, about 300 kilometres southeast of Williams Lake.
The search at that site, in an area that once was an orchard, was prompted by the discovery of a child's rib bone. The discovery in that location matched memories of survivors, who described children as young as six being woken up during the night and made to dig graves in the orchard.
That investigation is ongoing. The last update, in July, included that an area of nearly 650,000 square metres still needed to be surveyed.
An expert involved in the search of the area with ground-penetrating radar said it can be challenging to know if what analysts are seeing is a grave, prior to exhumation, when there is no casket, suggesting it would be some time before the total number of unmarked graves could be confirmed.
The findings at what was Canada's largest residential school sparked searches at the sites of former schools across the country, leading to similar discoveries elsewhere in B.C. and in other provinces.
CALLS FOR APOLOGIES, ACTION
The Pope has been invited by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to visit the site if he travels to Canada in the "context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples."
A statement from the Vatican suggested the Pope is willing to do so, but did not commit to a date. The Pope expressed sorrow over the discoveries at residential schools – which were news to some, but confirmed what many survivors had known for decades – but has stopped short of directly apologizing for the role the Catholic Church played in the school system.
Tuesday's update also comes just days after a promise from Ottawa to release a mass of records related to residential schools.
Governments and churches that ran the schools have been under pressure to provide the records since the first report about the Kamloops Indian Residential School was released, but did not agree to the release until Thursday.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller signed a memorandum of understanding on that day, outlining how and when the records will be released.
Thousands of pages of documents are expected to contain details on how children ended up in unmarked graves. For years, officials including the prime minister claimed all documents had been released, but those statements were untrue.
The process may take as long as six months, and resources will be required to comb through the documents, which need to be handled with care, but more will be released to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at some point.
For support for residential school survivors or others, contact the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or www.irsss.ca.
With files from The Canadian Press and CTV News Vancouver's Alyse Kotyk and Bhinder Sajan
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