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Students at St. Joseph's Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., in 1943.Deschâtelets-NDC Archives

The Williams Lake First Nation has announced the discovery of 93 potential graves at the sprawling site of a former residential school in B.C.’s Central Interior, 50 of which appear to be outside of the facility’s cemetery.

Archaeologist Whitney Spearing, head of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School investigative team, said at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon that a number of scientific techniques were used to scour a 14-hectare area. They included ground-penetrating radar, the technology underpinning the discovery of about 200 unmarked graves near Kamloops last spring that spurred Williams Lake to undertake its own work.

The school closed in 1981, after 90 years of operation.

Ms. Spearing’s team interviewed survivors of the school from eight different First Nations and analyzed archival records and photographs to narrow down the search area. They also used a laser-radar instrument known as LiDAR, mounted on a small airplane, and another on the ground to map where old pipes and remnants of demolished buildings lay. This allowed them to narrow the search area to a small piece of the 470 hectares on which the Roman Catholic Church facility and its adjacent ranch once stood, Ms. Spearing said.

“It must be emphasized that no geophysical investigation can provide certainty into the presence of human remains – excavation is the only technology that will provide answers as to whether human remains are present,” Ms. Spearing told reporters.

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Investigators are still looking to interview more survivors, and are working through archives and interment records of the cemetery, which was in use until the school closed, to better understand where burials occurred, she said.

“Our investigation team is committed to seeking resolution and truth for those survivors and families who have lost children through the residential school system at St. Joseph’s Mission,” Ms. Spearing said.

The cemetery grounds cover a tiny portion of the area that was searched, with most of the potential graves found in other parts of the site.

“The team is working diligently to understand how the 93 potential burials correlate with the historic and modern extent of the cemetery,” Ms. Spearing said.

Still, Kukpi7 (Chief) Willie Sellars said many of the children who attended the school are unaccounted for. He also noted survivors’ accounts of the long history of sexual and physical abuse at the facility. Several former teachers were jailed in the 1980s and 1990s for sex crimes involving dozens of their students.

“In survivor accounts that are disturbing beyond words, we have heard detailed descriptions of how the unwanted babies of certain priests at St. Joseph’s were burned in the incinerator,” Kukpi7 Sellars said.

Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said last summer that some survivors told of young girls who gave birth to babies fathered by priests, and the infants were “taken away from them and deliberately killed.”

Last May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had identified what are believed to be the remains of more than 200 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, news that made international headlines and started a new national reckoning with the legacy of Canada’s colonial education system.

After the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc discovery, the B.C. government announced grants of up to $475,000 each for 21 First Nations to help with searches for human remains at former residential schools or government hospitals that were created to treat First Nations people.

The B.C. government appointed two liaisons to assist First Nations communities with searches. One of these representatives, Charlene Belleau, told The Canadian Press last summer that she would like to find the remains of Augustine Allen, an ancestor who took his own life while at St. Joseph’s.

On Tuesday, Kukpi7 Sellars said official records were uncovered that indicated some students ran away and one 8-year-old boy died in the wild of exposure.

“At the time, the coroner’s service and RCMP saw no reason to investigate the death as the child was ‘only an Indian,’ ” Kukpi7 Sellars said.

He also noted that letters from parents to the school show that a group of nine students attempted to kill themselves by ingesting poisoned hemlock. Kukpi7 Sellars said Augustine Allen was the only one of them who died.

At the Tuesday news conference, he acknowledged the support of the provincial and federal governments, thanking the ministers of Indigenous relations and reconciliation for attending. But he said more funding is needed to continue this investigation.

Kukpi7 Sellars said immediate steps must be taken to protect the site and the evidence with 24-hour security while discussions are held on whether to excavate. In the meantime, he said, outreach will continue with survivors and families of former students.

“In the coming weeks, the team will engage directly with the communities where children are known to be missing or deceased to discuss the investigation, return records and photographs of their children who were lost through the residential school system at St. Joseph’s Mission,” Kukpi7 Sellars said.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

With a report from the Canadian Press

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