Content warning: the following contains graphic and potentially triggering accounts of the experiences of people subjected to the atrocities of the Indian Residential School system, including sexual violence.
To survivors and their families, the news was both harrowing and validating.
On Tuesday, Williams Lake First Nation found 93 sites of likely human burials after examining a small piece of land surrounding St. Joseph’s Mission, a former Indian Residential School.
The investigation was prompted by the discovery during last spring of 215 Indigenous children’s remains at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The total number of Indigenous children who died in Residential Schools could be as high as 25,000.
In addition to probing the land, the Williams Lake First Nation carried out archival research and extensive interviews with survivors – findings that led the team “into the darkest recesses of human behaviour,” Chief Willie Sellars said.
“Our team has recorded not only stories involving the murder and disappearing of children and infants. They have listened to countless stories of systematic torture, starvation, rape and sexual assault of children at St. Joseph’s mission,” he added.
Chief Sellars says survivors also gave accounts of children being tied and lashed, and babies who were fathered by priests being thrown into the school’s incinerator. And he pointed to “clear evidence” that the church, federal government and the RCMP deliberately destroyed records and covered up criminal allegations.
St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School opened in 1891 and closed its doors as late as 1981.
For Nita Grass, a Board member and long-standing supporter of the Council of Canadians, the confirmation of these atrocities brings to light her personal journey with the Indian Residential Schools and their generational impact on survivors and their families and communities.
Below, she shares her reflections about the news from Williams Lake:
The Williams Lake Indian Band has released their findings in search of unmarked graves.
One of the survivors who was interviewed as part of the investigation has been quoted as saying: “I told my parents, I told the principal, I told the Indian agent, and I told the RCMP about my rape… But nobody believed me.”
This was a common occurrence: children’s concerns were simply disregarded as lies against the church. My mother, may she rest in eternal peace, had teachings in her young life by Catholic priests who traveled periodically throughout our territory. Until her last breath, she deeply believed in a religion that was brought in from a foreign country.
I am reminded of this excerpt from my writings, The Apprenticeship of a Heathen Child: A young woman sat quietly as she listened to the rantings of an elder. The elder was a strong advocate for the beliefs of the church’s teachings she had followed throughout her life. The elder was responding to a news story about a Catholic bishop who was being sentenced for the rape of a young girl in a residential school.
The elder kept repeating, “…it cannot be true. Why are they lying about such a good man? The church would not have allowed such things going on in their school. They are good people.”
The young woman kept her silence, not wanting to offend the elder. She knew that no matter how many times she would try to convince the elder otherwise, her elder was too far past redemption to return to the beliefs of her ancestors.
She finally turned and asked the elder: What about me, am I not a good person?
The Council of Canadians remains in a state of grief over the ongoing discoveries of bodies and unmarked graves at the sites of Residential Schools. We share our steadfast support for members of our organization, like Nita, who live and tell the truth of these atrocities, often channeling them into lifelong advocacy for Indigenous rights.
Here are resources and links to Indigenous-led campaigns for justice:
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action
Final report: National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Calls to Action Accountability: A 2020 Status Update on Reconciliation (Yellowhead Institute)
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
Indigenous Canada: A free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that explores Indigenous histories and contemporary issues in Canada
Settlers Take Action (resources compiled by the On Canada Project)
The Native Land you live on