Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced additional funding for B.C. First Nations to support healing for residential school survivors as he visited the site of a former school Wednesday.
Trudeau was welcomed by First Nation elders and residential school survivors in Williams Lake, B.C., participating in a series of ceremonies and meetings aimed at reconciliation and healing.
The visit comes about two months after Williams Lake First Nation announced it had found 93 “reflections” indicating unmarked graves of children around the former St. Joseph’s Mission residential school.
The prime minister and Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said the additional $2.9 million in federal funding will be in addition to the $1.4 million provided earlier this year. The money will go in part towards continuing research into the history of the residential school system, including uncovering remains and interviewing survivors.
“This is our history as a country,” Trudeau said. “And until we properly grasp it, and engage with it, understand it, and commit ourselves to better, then we are not living up to the kind of country we all like to think we are. We have work to do.”
The prime minister also said he is committed to the release of all records related to the residential school system to be released back to the First Nations to help with the healing process.
But he would not give a timeline on when that process will be completed, saying some records were being held up by privacy concerns that he said “need to be put aside, because the truth is more important.”
Trudeau’s visit to the Williams Lake First Nation began with the prime minister and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller receiving gifts and hearing songs. Both were treated to a smudging ceremony meant to drive away negativity and begin the healing process.
“I am moved to be here,” Trudeau said after the ceremony.
“I am here to indicate that all of Canada grieves with this community at the feelings of loss that have come since the discovery of the reflections, but also the deep loss that this community has felt over generations because of the legacy of residential schools.”
Trudeau and Miller then met with elders and survivors individually to talk about the challenges and hardships that the community and so many others have experienced since the discoveries of the unmarked graves.
RoseAnne Archibald, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said it was emotional to witness survivors telling their stories directly to Trudeau and Miller.
“To watch that interaction was such an honour for me, because they were sharing so much of themselves,” she said.
“It was an important (interaction with the prime minister), because I believe that when you touch somebody’s heart, you help them to understand the importance of healing. And I believe that’s the journey we’re on with this prime minister.”
Trudeau later joined Sellars and other elders in a visit to the site where the unmarked graves were discovered.
Before Trudeau arrived, Sellars said the First Nation hoped he would bring a commitment of long-term funding as his community and others search for the remains of missing children around the sites of former residential schools in Canada.
Sellars said they need the federal government to provide complete records about St. Joseph’s, along with support in urging the Roman Catholic Church to do the same, as they work to identify children who never returned home.
The federal government’s role in advancing reconciliation should also include support for economic development and key community needs, like housing, he said.
St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981 and has since been demolished. An additional property, the Onward Ranch, was added in 1964 to support the operational needs of the school. The sites were predominantly run by Roman Catholic missionaries.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one student died of exposure after trying to escape St. Joseph’s in 1902. Another died and eight others became ill after eating poisonous water hemlock, which parents believed was a response to discipline at the school.
The “reflections” or anomalies were detected by ground-penetrating radar. Excavation is required to confirm whether they are human remains.
The First Nation’s investigation, which included deep archival research and extensive interviews with survivors and descendants, also uncovered harrowing stories of gang rape, child molestation, confinement, exposure to extreme conditions, intentional starvation and beatings to the point of unconsciousness. The school also employed child slave labour through the ranch, Sellars said in January.
“The initial operation of the mission was an industrial school where First Nations’ pupils performed labour-intensive tasks, including serving white children and staff, timber-splitting, cattle-rearing, farming and sewing,” he added.
“There were reports of children dying or disappearing from the facilities. For the bulk of St. Joseph’s Mission history, these reports were, at best, given no credence. At worst, there was something darker going on and an effort to suppress the emergence of the truth.”
In the 1980s and 90s, two former staff pleaded guilty to charges related to sexually abusing students.
Trudeau’s visit comes as 32 Indigenous representatives arrived in Rome for a week of meetings with the Pope, arranged by the Holy See and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The prime minister was in Vancouver on Tuesday.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended Canada’s 139 residential schools, described by some as institutions of assimilation. Their purpose, writes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was to “kill the Indian in the child.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.