VANCOUVER—Investigators at a former residential school in British Columbia say they have found another 66 potential graves at a site near the Williams Lake First Nation during the latest phase of an investigation that made 93 such discoveries a year ago.
Chief Willie Sellars said Wednesday that more evidence is coming to light about the “horror and suffering” faced by Indigenous children forced to attend the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, which opened in 1891 and ultimately closed in 1981.
“The history of St. Joseph’s mission and the land surrounding it is very dark,” Sellars said during a news conference.
“Documented evidence is growing every day as we explore archival records and interview survivors and their families.”
The latest 66 “reflections,” found in the ground during a technical survey using ground-penetrating radar, indicate the potential burial of children, investigators said.
Last year 93 such reflections of potential human burials were found near a historic cemetery on the school site, about 20 kilometres from Williams Lake and about 500 kilometres north of Vancouver.
Wednesday’s news conference detailed the latest discovery of potential graves across Canada in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, a Saskatchewan First Nation said it had found about 2,000 “anomalies” using ground-penetrating radar that could be the graves of children who attended a residential school in Lebret. A more than 100-year-old fragment of a child’s jawbone was also found.
Days later in Kenora, Ont., another 171 “plausible” graves were found.
The discovery of potential graves of Indigenous children across Canada began in May 2021, when more than 200 such sites were discovered. At the time Indigenous leaders said other such schools across Canada should also be searching for potential graves.
Sellars said the work presented Wednesday represents only 34 hectares subject to geophysical analysis of the 782 associated with the residential school, which was operated by Roman Catholic missionaries for most of its history.
“It is important to remember that these results are preliminary and only reflect the work conducted to date,” he said.
“There are more phases of work to be completed, and our investigation has and will evolve as new information comes to light.”
Sellars says the next steps will be to potentially exhume bodies in the areas that have already been scanned, showing a total of 159 possible unmarked graves.
He said children from 48 nations attended the school.
Lead investigator Whitney Spearing said the results of Phase 2 of the investigation show there were crimes committed against children associated with the Catholic operation of St. Joseph’s Mission.
Spearing said in addition to the reflections found in a technical survey, their interviews with survivors and archival records lead them to believe babies born as a result of child sexual assault at the mission were disposed of by incineration on and off-site.
She said “a minimum” of 28 children died at the mission, which operated between 1886 and 1981, many of them buried in unmarked graves around the site. Interviews with more than two dozen survivors have been conducted and, Spearing said, any who wish to speak to investigators are encourage to contact them.
Spearing pointed out that one survivor who was interviewed recently died, underlining the urgency of collecting survivor testimony.
Sellars encouraged those struggling with the news to seek available support. He said staying together is how the community can get through the process and spoke directly to survivors of the school and their families.
“We see you, we have heard your stories,” he said. “We believe you and the work we are doing is done for the purpose of bringing the truth to light.”
With files from The Canadian Press
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
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