Number of potential unmarked graves at St. Joseph’s Mission rises to 159

Thursday, January 26th, 2023 5:13pm


Image Caption

Williams Lake First Nation lead investigator Whitney Spearing.
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The second phase of ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry survey grid searches on 18.4 hectares at the St. Joseph’s Mission residential school site on Williams Lake First Nation in British Columbia has found 66 more “reflections” that are potential human burials.

“Current data suggests that none of the 66 reflections inside the Phase 2 area are associated with any recorded cemetery or burial areas,” said Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) lead investigator Whitney Spearing, on Jan. 25.

These potential burials are in addition to the 93 anomalies identified in the first phase of a similar search that took place on 14 hectares in 2021 and were announced in January 2022.

Fifty of the potential 93 anomalies are not associated with the cemetery.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s memorial register lists 16 children who died while attending St. Joseph’s Mission, said Spearing.

“However, through the course of the WLFN investigation, we’ve been able to ascertain that a minimum of 28 children were deceased at the mission,” she said. “We’re also aware that many of these children are buried at the mission in unmarked graves.”

Spearing added that survivors also had accounts of babies born at the mission “as a product of child sexual assault”. They said the babies were incinerated both at the mission and off-site.

“Critical pieces of missing information have been relocated as part of the survivor interview process, including … areas in which crimes were perpetrated (and) names, birthdates and physical descriptions of children who disappeared or were deceased at the mission,” said Spearing.

The second phase search had targeted 154 hectares. However, the scannable area was reduced due to environmental obstructions, such as water. A high-interest area was determined based on survivor testimony, archival and photographic evidence, traditional use interviews and historical significance.

Field technicians spent 59 days collecting data using GPR, magnetometry, drone LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and high-resolution aerial imagery.

Spearing anticipated that as more information became available, the search area would spread to include the mission proper, the Onward Ranch and Yellow Lake. Both the St. Joseph’s Mission and the Onward Ranch properties consisted of dozens of buildings.

“From the results of our Phase 2 investigation, Williams Lake First Nation has ascertained that crimes against children were perpetrated at both of these properties, additionally at several cabins and outposts associated with the Oblates’ operation of the St. Joseph’s Mission,” said Spearing.

Because of this, she said, the investigation area has been enlarged to include approximately 782 hectares.

“It must be emphasized no geophysical investigation can provide certainty into the presence of human remains. Excavation is the only technique that will provide answers as to whether or not there are human remains present within the reflections at St. Joseph’s Mission,” said Spearing.

Children from 48 different First Nations have been identified as attending St. Joseph’s Mission. That high number will make decisions on how to move forward, particularly with exhumation and excavation, a complicated issue, said Kukpi7 Willie Sellars, but WLFN was committed to having those discussions.

St. Joseph’s Mission was opened in 1886, funded by the federal government and operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It began as an industrial school. Onward Ranch was added in 1964 as the mission’s effort to become self-sustaining. The mission operated as part of the residential school system until 1981.

Sellars said the investigative team will continue to dialogue with the federal and provincial governments to ensure the work is “recognized and actioned.”

 “To this end, we specifically will be seeking funding for the remaining phases of the geophysical work and the potential excavation and exhumation of phase one and two areas,” said Sellars.

He also identified as a “key priority” preserving the site with protective measures and security patrols in order to protect “any evidence present in human remains.”

A sacred fire began yesterday afternoon and will continue until Saturday. Tissues with tears from the Jan. 25 announcement were to be added to that sacred fire.

“It’s very challenging not to get emotional every single time a new announcement is made in this country and we like to think we’re becoming conditioned to hear the news and to hear the findings and to an extent we are. But we are still continued to be triggered in our day-to-day lives,” said Sellars.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.