Canada continues to face the ravages of colonialism. Leaders of the Williams Lake Indian Reservation (inhabited by members of the Shuswap people) announced Tuesday the discovery of dozens of unmarked graves on the grounds of the former St Joseph’s Mission boarding school, located in the province of British Columbia, about 500 kilometers from Vancouver. . At a press conference, Willie Sellars, head of this reserve, said: “There were reports of neglect and abuse in this boarding school for decades, and what is worse: there were reports of children who died or disappeared.” Sellars added: “There was no credibility given to them.”
St Joseph’s Mission Boarding School was founded in 1886 by the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. It closed its doors in 1981 and was demolished 26 years later. This institution was part of the boarding schools for indigenous children that operated in Canada from 1883 to 1996. The financing of this network was carried out by the federal government, while its administration was in the hands of religious communities (mostly Catholic). Some 150,000 indigenous minors were forced to live in these centers for assimilation.
Whitney Spearing, head of the investigation team, indicated that the investigations were carried out in 14 of the 470 hectares linked to the former boarding school, in an area that was designated as “of interest” for these works, after consulting archives and listening to various testimonies. . There, 93 “potential graves” were found. Spearing said some of these discoveries may be related to an old burial ground, but at least 50 appear to be unrelated to the graveyard. The findings were made possible by ground-penetrating radar and LIDAR sensors. The expert stated that it will be necessary to carry out excavations for full confirmation. Willie Sellars said his community is aware that many of the remains of the children who died at the boarding school may never be recovered. “Their bodies were thrown into rivers, dumped at the bottom of lakes, thrown into incinerators as garbage,” he said.
In 2019, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established that 4,134 minors died in these boarding schools. However, some experts estimate more than 6,000 deaths. The find at St Joseph’s Mission is the fourth of its kind. Last May, 215 unmarked graves were discovered in Kamloops, British Columbia. In June, the discovery of 751 at the former boarding school in Marieval, Saskatchewan, was announced. A few weeks later, 182 were added on St. Eugene’s Mission grounds in British Columbia. All these discoveries have been the result of initiatives by indigenous communities. The federal government and some provinces have made resources available for these tasks, although experts classify them as insufficient.
Following Tuesday’s announcement, RoseAnne Archibald, head of the Canadian Assembly of First Nations, said: “We continue to push at all levels for accountability and action to help bring justice and healing to our people.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted on Twitter. He said that the news is extremely painful, but that it is necessary to continue on the path of reconciliation and bring to light “the truths that the indigenous peoples have known for a long time.” Some communities currently carry out search work in other institutions that were part of the federal network. Trudeau said last July: “The biggest mistake this country has made is the forced assimilation of indigenous minors through boarding schools.”
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.