Editor’s note: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to readers.
Chiefs from across B.C. have been meeting at length Friday morning after Indigenous communities were rocked by the news of the discovery of the remains of 215 children — some as young as three years old — at the site of the former Kamloops residential school.
“I’ve never seen (Chief) Willie (Sellars) like this. He has a thousand pounds on his shoulders,” said Williams Lake First Nations CAO Aaron Mannella Friday morning (May 28). “He feels the burden of all First Nations people and he’s reeling, like many First Nations people are today.”
Just 25 kilometres from downtown Williams Lake is the site of the St. Joseph’s Mission residential school, which operated from July 19, 1891 to June 30, 1981.
Thousands of Secwepemc, Tsilhqot’in and Southern Dakelh/Carrier attended the mission and still live in the Cariboo Chilcotin area today.
‘A lifetime of remembering’
Pearl Petal attended the Mission with her siblings for 10 years. She witnessed the harsh realities of the residential school and still feels the effects of the experience to this day.
“This is a lifetime of remembering. It is not easy,” Petal told the Tribune.
Petal said she was not surprised by the discovery of the burial site and has heard the horror stories herself of babies being disposed of in the furnace of the St. Joseph’s Mission school. Many stories are too difficult to repeat, she said.
She said she feels angered by the discovery in Kamloops.
“I feel for the families and I am sorry for them,” she said.
“But I’m glad that they were found. It’s an eye-opener for many people all over the world.”
Petal said she hopes the confirmation will prove to non-Indigenous people the true history behind the residential schools.
Calls to search all residential schools for burial sites
She also wants St. Joseph’s Mission and all other residential school sites searched for similar burial sites, which she believes would be found.
Mannella said he’s heard similar stories from elders about deaths at St Joseph’s Mission and does expect there will be a call to action to analyse other residential sites across Canada, including St Joseph’s Mission.
“This is genocide. This is a stark reality … I sure hope that folks take a look and really reflect on what has occurred.”
He added trauma support is being offered to all members affected by the news.
Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner for B.C., released a statement Friday, noting they are early in the process of gathering information and will continue to work collaboratively with the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and others as the work progresses.
“We recognize the tragic, heartbreaking devastation that the Canadian residential school system has inflicted upon so many, and our thoughts are with all of those who are in mourning today.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a moment of silence during question period Friday morning out of respect for the child victims.
The B.C. society of Indian Residential School Survivors is offering toll-free telephone support for survivors at 1-800-721-0066.