Healing is first priority after WLFN purchases former residential ‘school’ site

Content Warning: This article includes graphic content involving residential “schools” including accounts of abuse which may be triggering. Please look after your spirit and read with care.

The Kúkwpi7 of Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) says he has “peace of mind” now that his community officially owns a plot of land where many of his kin attended residential “school.”

Willie Sellars said Tuesday his community can undergo ceremony and healing now that it has agency over the former St. Joseph’s Mission site near T’exelc (Sugar Cane), where the nation has led an investigation into unmarked burials and found evidence of graves.

Now, with the help of provincial funding, WLFN has purchased the 13.7-acre plot and can move ahead with its work to find closure for survivors of the institution as well as honouring those who never made it home.

“We eventually want to get to a position where we are exhuming, we are excavating,” Sellars said, “but there is a process that we have to follow by holding up not only the Williams Lake First Nation, but every single other nation that is impacted and holding up their ceremony and their culture and their students that also went to that school.”

Sellars made the announcement with the provincial Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin outside the WLFN office on Sept. 5, where community members gathered as well as media.

Before the announcement was made, drummers opened the event with the Mitchell Honour song. Elder Jean William said a prayer in Secwepemctsín and welcomed visitors.

“This is a beautiful day where we can get together here, and remember the ones that never came home,” William said.

Rankin started by acknowledging “that the culture is alive and thriving” while also recognizing “the work that’s being done to bring it back when it has suffered in the past.”

The province reportedly contributed $849,000 while WLFN paid the rest for a total of $1.2 million to complete the sale.

“That means, thanks to this purchase that the property will be returned to the rightful stewardship of Indigenous people and protected in perpetuity as the Williams Lake First Nation, the caretaker nation for the area, sees fit,” Rankin said.

“This announcement ensures that former students, their families and their communities can visit the site for cultural, spiritual, personal, and other commemorative purposes. Now and in the future.”

WLFN launched an investigation into potential graves on the site in 2021. The nation has long sought the return of the land where the “school” operated, Sellars said, and former leadership was recognized for their commitment over the years to make this vision a reality.

Rick Gilbert, a previous Kúkwpi7 and current counsellor for WLFN was acknowledged by current Kúkwpi7 Sellars as having played a pivotal role in the return of the land. “That fight that you fought for so long and so hard is finally here.”

The St Joseph’s Mission operated from 1891-1981 and was predominantly run by the Catholic Church. While the “school” was in operation, thousands of children from more than 40 communities including Secwépemc, Tŝilhqot’in and Dakelh were forced to attend.

The institution has become notorious for the horrific abuse inflicted on children by the adults who worked there. In the 1980s and ‘90s, there were three high-profile criminal convictions of staff for physical and sexual assaults at the “school.”

Along with accounts of deaths and missing “students,” survivors have also spoken about the use of an incinerator and being made to consume rotten food. WLFN’s investigation involving ground-penetrating radar found 159 reflections that indicate the presence of burials, according to the province.

When Sellars announced findings of the investigation in January 2022, he said the investigation led the team into the “darkest recesses of human behaviour,” hearing survivor accounts that were “disturbing beyond words.”

Now that the land where St. Joseph’s Mission operated on is being transferred to WLFN, Sellars said the nation will continue to go through archives, ground-penetrating radar findings and look at the next steps.

When asked about a monument for the site, he noted that, at this time, the site will be preserved and made safe for any future ceremonies and healing that needs to be done there.

He said he has “peace of mind that we’ll be able to do that work uncontested moving forward into the future.”

“We continue to see online and in our personal circles, that denialism of residential schools and the legacy of what happened at those schools in this country,” he added.

“We have the stories and we have the evidence that says otherwise, and by moving forward and preserving that site — and looking at how we can honour that legacy of those schools and those children — we’ll be putting those denialists to bed.”

Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.

Dionne Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews