Children drummed to welcome Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he arrived at the Williams Lake First Nation in British Columbia Wednesday.
Trudeau said his visit shows that “all of Canada grieves” with the community after 93 “reflections” were found that could indicate the burial sites of children around the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.
The prime minister says he was primarily in Williams Lake to listen and learn from elders, survivors and the community about “what the path forward looks like, not just for this community, but for this country, in partnership, in respect, in reconciliation.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and Trudeau met with elders and residential school survivors individually, grasping their hands and offering braids of sweetgrass.
Trudeau announced that Ottawa will provide $2.9 million in additional funding for First Nations in B.C. to support healing for communities whose children were taken from their families and sent to St. Joseph’s.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office says the funding will be used to continue research and to “further uncover the truth about what happened at the school and begin the process of healing.”
Trudeau said the communities should determine how the funding is used to best help their members.
Before Trudeau arrived, Williams Lake Chief Willie Sellars said the First Nation hoped the prime minister 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.
The investigation at St. Joseph’s came after ground-penetrating radar located what are believed to be more than 200 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops last year.
The St. Joseph’s institution was opened by the Roman Catholic Church in 1891 as an industrial school where Indigenous children were required to do labour like timber splitting and farming, Sellars said in January. It remained open until 1981.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documented the experiences of survivors and others affected by Canada’s residential schools, says at least 4,100 children died of neglect at the institutions.
Trudeau said his government will help Indigenous communities find residential school records.
“We are committed to sharing all the information that can possibly be found to allow for healing, to allow for closure and to allow for us to move forward with full understanding of what the terrible truth of our history is,” he told the media.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.