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'Crimes against children' at former B.C. residential institution, investigator says

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — The investigation of unmarked graves at a former residential school near Williams Lake First Nation in central British Columbia has found crimes were committed against children, the lead investigator told a news conference.
A cemetery and a boarded-up abandoned building are seen on the former grounds of St. Joseph's Mission residential School, in Williams Lake, B.C., on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Williams Lake First Nation in central British Columbia is ready to announce results from the second phase of an investigation of grounds around the school, where 93 "reflections," indicating unmarked graves of children were found in 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — The investigation of unmarked graves at a former residential school near Williams Lake First Nation in central British Columbia has found crimes were committed against children, the lead investigator told a news conference.

Whitney Spearing said the second phase of their work has identified 66 "reflections," adding to the initial 93 potential graves already detected at the site of the former Catholic-run St. Joseph's Mission.

Children from dozens of First Nations attended the school, which operated between 1886 and 1981. 

In addition to the reflections identified in technical surveys, Spearing said interviews with survivors and searches through archives revealed it is "clear" that babies born as a result of child sexual assault at the mission were disposed of by incineration.

Spearing said their work, which involved searches of government, church and police archives, found "a minimum" of 28 children died there, many of them buried in unmarked graves at the site about 500 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

The investigation has also involved an interview with a former teacher at the institution, she added, noting that person was located in Bangkok, Thailand.

Spearing concluded her remarks Wednesday by saying it "must be emphasized" that no geophysical investigation could provide evidence of human remains with certainty.

"Excavation is the only technique that will provide answers as to whether human remains are present within the reflections at St. Joseph’s Mission," she said.

The nation announced a year ago that the initial phase of its investigation had uncovered 93 "reflections" indicative of human burials. 

Combined, both phases have identified 159 possible unmarked graves.

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said 34 of 782 hectares requiring investigation have so far been subjected to geophysical analysis, and the next steps will potentially involve excavation in areas that have already been scanned.

Children from 48 different First Nations attended the institution, he said, and engaging with those communities around potential exhumation is a "scary thought."

"But by working together, I feel confident that we will be able to hold each other up."

The purpose of the investigation is "bringing the truth to light," Sellars said.

The history of the mission and the land surrounding it is "very dark," he said, and evidence of "horror and suffering" is "growing every day" through the investigation.

Some Canadians question the legitimacy of his community's investigation and others underway at former residential institutions across the country, he added.

"To those who are skeptical, we assure you that there is an overwhelming abundance of evidence, and that it is being carefully compiled in an orderly and scientific way," Sellars said.

Phyllis Webstad, the founder of the Orange Shirt Society, which works to honour survivors and children who never came home from residential schools, issued a statement in response to the announcement. 

"How do we prepare for the news that confirms what we have known to be true?" said Webstad, who attended the school as a student.

"We, as survivors, have had to sit with this truth our entire lives and now, finally, the rest of the world is realizing these truths too."

The prime minister visited Williams Lake First Nation and the site of the former institution last spring as the community honoured survivors and children who never returned home from what Justin Trudeau described as "that so-called school."

He said his government was committed to sharing all the information it could find about the institution "to allow for healing, to allow for closure and to allow for us to move forward with full understanding of what the terrible truth of our history is.''

The probe at St. Joseph's came after ground-penetrating radar located what are believed to be more than 200 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., in May 2021, prompting similar searches and findings in several provinces.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documented the experiences of those affected by Canada's residential school system, found at least 4,100 children died while attending the institutions.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

The Canadian Press

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