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Historical tragic hospital fire being investigated at Tl’etinqox First Nation west of Williams Lake

12 children died in the May 1958 fire
Tl’etinqox First Nation cemetery. (Photo submitted)

A historical fatal fire at a small hospital in Tl’etinqox First Nation 64 years ago that claimed the lives of 12 children is being investigated by the nation.

“We are going to do ground penetrating radar for the Indian Hospital that was located on our reserve,” said Chief Joe Alphonse.

On the north side of the community cemetery there are also some unmarked graves that will be probed as well.

At the time of the tragedy, which occurred May 22, 1958, 13 children ranging from babies to 10-year-olds were all patients in the nursing home, which was run by the Sisters of Christ the King who also taught in the school which was housed in the same building.

Sister Mary of the Cross was the only nurse on duty the day of the fire. The other eight nuns in the order were at prayer in the convent about 75 feet away.

When sister lit the wood stove, just before 5 p.m., she mistakenly grabbed a bottle of gas instead of coal oil, which exploded and started the fire.

Frantically she ran around trying to rescue the children, calling for help to “save the babies,” but was only able to escape the building with one of the children.

Men from the community and other nuns ran to help, but were unable to access the second floor of the burning building where the majority of the children were staying.

In its coverage of the inquest into the fire, the Williams Lake Tribune reported the jury found no person responsible for the fire, and suggested in the future that federal government buildings be inspected regularly to ensure they comply with existing fire regulations so that occupants have a reasonable chance to escape.

Sister Mary of the Cross testified from the War Memorial Hospital where she was recovering from severe burns.

Two years ago the area that will be investigated was fenced off due to concerns from elders, said Alphonse.

“It means a lot to them,” he said of the elders. “Now we have an opportunity to identify where those remains are at and put markers on those graves. We want to put up a big stone cairn and describe what happened and what the significance of that area is.”

His community has taken a double hit because many members attended St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School near Williams Lake.

“You look at the prolific offenders in Williams Lake and you wonder why a high number of them come from my community. That’s a direct link.”

Tl’etinqox is collaborating with the University of British Columbia to interview community members about the fire and has received $200,000 from the provincial government for the project.

“When you want to extract stories there is a formula you have to use and we want to make sure the information we gather is going to be done in a professional way and scientific way so if we ever have to use that information we can do so and that will stand up in court or whatever process we may need.”

The Tl’etinqox Government is also hiring data collectors to research the old hospital by gathering stories of people who attended and document the fire and the lives lost.

“We want to give our members an opportunity to come and talk. These are very intense discussions and they open up a lot of old wounds.”

Karen Jim has been hired for the project and said she will be going to all the Tsilhqot’in communities to let them know what she is doing.

Anyone who would like to contact her is asked to call her at 250-394-4658.

Children who died in the fire came from various Tsilhqot’in communities as well as Tl’etinqox.

The people who are hired for the investigation will have to be fluent in Tsilhqot’in and know the culture, Alphonse said, noting he also anticipates some of the interviews will cover residential school experiences as well.

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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