Last May, horrible news about 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School shocked Canada – and the world.
This sad story is not over. The Williams Lake First Nation just announced the discovery of potentially 93 human burials near the St. Joseph’s Residential School. The former school was open for almost a hundred years, from 1891 through 1981.
And there could be more.
Whitney Spearing, who led the investigation using ground-penetrating radar, said they’ve only looked at a small fraction of the 470 hectares identified as an area of interest. Spearing said the only way to confirm human remains is through excavation.
In a CBC News report, Williams Lake First Nation chief Willie Sellars called the findings a “reawakening” for indigenous people about the traumas of the residential school system.
Bev Sellars, who comes from a neighbouring community, was a student at St. Joseph’s from 1962 to 1967. Both her mother and grandmother were also forced to attend.
“We need to make sure that Canada knows about these atrocities that happened at these schools,” Sellars told CBC News.
Abuse at the school was widespread. Some St. Joseph’s leaders, including Father Harold McIntee, have been convicted of sexual offences against the students at the school.
But that conviction happened in 2008.
So, where are the investigations into whose responsible for the recently discovered bodies?
More than 150,000 indigenous children attended residential schools until the last one closed in 1997. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates 4,100 kids died from neglect and abuse by priests and nuns at these schools. By any civilized standard, that’s a shocking statistic. But that’s only deaths that are already known . The actual number is likely much higher.
Since the discoveries in Kamloops last spring, survivors from coastal residential schools have been pushing for similar searches for unmarked graves on school grounds. Last June, local First Nations launched a survey of the Alberni Indian Residential School. That scan is still underway.
The federal government’s response has been less than satisfactory, says Ken Watts, chief of Tseshaht First Nation, one of three nations with territory in the Port Alberni region. Many people from these communities were forced to attend the Alberni school.
Last summer, Ottawa announced $27 million in funding to help communities locate residential school victims. But it’s not enough.
There are 139 recognized residential schools in Canada. Watts noted that if the $27 million was distributed equally among them all, Tseshaht would receive less than $200,000.
“It’s probably not going to be enough to do it right,” said Watts in a Times Colonist story.
Despite empty promises, the federal government continues to drag its heels. Apparently, Ottawa prefers to protect the church rather than the families and survivors who were traumatized by these state-run schools.
They have refused to hand over thousands of residential school documents until recently. They blamed “third party” obligations to various orders of the Catholic Church.
Only last week did Trudeau’s government agree to hand over more than 875,000 documents to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. This is long overdue. Among the documents being withheld are so-called “school narratives,” which document a school’s history.
The narrative for the Kuper Island Indian Residential School, located on what is now known as Penekalut Island north of Salt Spring Island, is one of the soon-be-released documents.
The government claims there are no surviving documents for St. Joseph’s in Williams Lake and three other residential schools.
Where’s the urgency? Where’s the commitment to use the full power of the government?
We need full transparency from the federal government. Church leaders need to hold their churches to account. And there are likely priests alive today who have never faced justice for acts and abuses perpetrated in residential schools.
It’s been nearly nine months. That’s plenty of time to launch a criminal investigation into those responsible for the newly discovered deaths at various residential schools.
When will Ottawa and Victoria move past empty apologies to take meaningful action?