Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
The Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) is scheduled to host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, just over two months after it announced findings from its initial investigation into possible unmarked burials near a former residential school and highlighted the unthinkable abuse faced by Indigenous children who’d been forced to attend.
“WLFN will be welcoming the prime minister and his team next week to the Secwepemc territory,” the nation confirmed in a statement to Global News last week.
“His visit comes after the announcement of Jan. 25, where the WLFN found 93 reflections at the former St. Joseph’s Mission site.”
On Jan. 25, Kúkpi7 (Chief) Willie Sellars held a news conference to announce an initial sweep of the former site of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School had detected 93 “reflections” or anomalies in the ground, indicating possible burial sites. The investigation into whether the “reflections” contain human remains is ongoing.
Kúkpi7 Sellars, whose father was forced to attend the institution, told reporters that the efforts to continue searching the lands around residential schools across Canada, identifying the lost children and seeking accountability for the crimes committed against them would require a national approach.
“An individual task force in each province could be a good start, but it’s not a criminal investigation that we could lead at the WLFN,” he said in a later interview with Global News at the time, adding that the provincial and federal governments approved the nation’s request for funding to conduct its own investigation shortly after Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc announced 215 possible unmarked burials near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last May.
There is a cemetery on some of the lands, now privately owned, of the torn-down St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, which was run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
A 470-hectare area was determined as a target for the investigation in the summer of 2021 through survivor interviews, and a 14-hectare section of that plot was scanned using multiple methods, including remote-sensing technology and ground-penetrating radar.
Kúkpi7 Sellars said children suffered systematic torture at the facility, and that he hopes politicians get a stark reminder every time an announcement is made to not forget and to continue to stand beside the Indigenous communities doing those investigations.
“This journey has led our investigation team into the darkest recesses of human behaviour,” he said at the Jan 25. news conference.
“Our team has recorded not only stories involving the murder and disappearance of children and infants, they have listened to countless stories of systematic torture, starvation, rape and sexual assault of children at St. Joseph’s Mission.”
Trudeau responded on social media that day, saying on Twitter, “Today’s news from Williams Lake First Nation brings a lot of distressing emotions to the surface. My heart breaks for the members of the community, and for those whose loved ones never came home.”
Today’s news from Williams Lake First Nation brings a lot of distressing emotions to the surface. My heart breaks for the members of the community, and for those whose loved ones never came home.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 26, 2022
The prime minister came under fire last fall for vacationing in Tofino on Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, despite multiple invitations from Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc leadership to visit the community and the site of the unmarked burials. Trudeau later apologized when he travelled there in October, following public backlash.
His scheduled visit to the Williams Lake First Nation comes the same week an Indigenous delegation, made up of members from across Canada, including two from B.C., are in Vatican City for meetings with Pope Francis to discuss residential school trauma and reconciliation, including a papal apology.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
Past calls for an apology have gone unanswered, including during a previous Indigenous delegation meeting with Pope Benedict in 2009. But those calls have strengthened over the years, especially since the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc announcement last May that led to a national reckoning on residential schools.
Rosanne Casimir, Kúkpi7 of Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, told Global News she plans to hand-deliver an invitation for Pope Francis to come to the community and issue a formal apology on Indigenous land.
As one of its 94 recommendations in 2015, the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged the Pope to issue an apology “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”
Pope Francis has committed to coming to Canada as part of reconciliation-advancing efforts, but a date has not been set. It could happen this summer.
That visit, along with a meaningful apology, are critical to healing, say many residential school and inter-generational survivors.
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.