First Nation in B.C. plans dig for remains at ex-school, signs deal with RCMP, province

Williams Lake

The British Columbia government says the Williams Lake First Nation is planning to excavate the site of a former residential school to recover possible human remains and has signed an agreement with the province and RCMP to help guide the process.

The Ministry of Indigenous Relations says the memorandum of understanding is the first of its kind in B.C. and sets out the process used for potential recovery, identification and repatriation of remains linked to the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.

The ministry says the First Nation has been investigating the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous children who attended the school that operated until 1981, including the use of ground-penetrating radar, archival research and survivor interviews.

It says the research has determined Indigenous children died “and are likely interred” on or near sites associated with the school, leading to the First Nation’s plans for “targeted excavations.”

The Williams Lake First Nation announced in January 2022 that it had preliminary findings of 93 potential burial sites of potential human remains around the former residential school.

Chief Willie Sellars says the memorandum ensures the Williams Lake First Nation will continue to lead the process.

He says in the news release that the agreement “provides the clarity we need in relation to future investigative activities and ensures the careful, culturally sensitive and respectful treatment of any human remains that might be recovered.”

The ministry says the memorandum “commits to building a shared understanding of the roles of the parties, as they work together to develop and implement the necessary processes and protocols that will likely be used in the potential recovery of remains.”

Signatories are the Williams Lake First Nation, the British Columbia Coroners Service, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, RCMP, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General and the archeology branch of Ministry of Forests.

The government says a team made up of senior leadership from each of the signatories will act in an advisory capacity.

Murray Rankin, the minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, said the agreement is “a very important step to have a First Nation led process to document the history of individual and multi-generational harms caused by the residential school system.”

“It is a step on the path toward truth, healing and justice,” he added in the release. “This MOU reflects a collaborative approach, so that together with Williams Lake First Nation, we can seek truth and justice for the generations of families affected by St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.”

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Williams Lake First Nation says it located files showing additional deaths at former residential school 

The province says children from more than 40 communities were taken to St. Joseph’s Mission.

In the 1980s and 1990s there were three high-profile criminal convictions for physical and sexual assault that took place at the school.

The investigation at St. Joseph’s, about 500 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, was launched after ground-penetrating radar located what are believed to be more than 200 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops in May 2021, prompting similar searches and findings at former institutions in several other provinces.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documented the experiences of those affected by Canada’s residential school system, found at least 4,100 children died while attending the institutions.

Last year, the Williams Lake First Nation purchased the site of St. Joseph’s from a private owner for $1.2 million with the help of the B.C. government.

Sellars said at the time that the purchase was to ensure the integrity of the investigation and honour both the children who disappeared and those who were taken from their families to attend the school.

With files by Dirk Meissner in Victoria.

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