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Willie Nahanee, 79, of the Squamish Nation, holds a photograph of the 1932 St. Paul's Indian Residential School girls class in North Vancouver on Aug. 10, 2021. St. Paul’s operated from 1899 to 1959.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Three First Nations will lead an investigation into what happened to the children who were forced to attend the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, B.C., and never made it home.

The Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations will develop investigation plans together with support from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, which owns the site, Squamish Nation councillor and spokesperson Khelsilem said Tuesday.

“This sacred and healing work is very difficult, but it’s important,” Khelsilem said. “We are seeking information because there are many unknowns. Our intention is that this investigation protects, supports, honours and brings peace to our members, survivors, families and Indigenous communities.”

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The St. Paul’s Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1959 and was the only residential school in Metro Vancouver. About 75 children lived on site at any given time, with more than 2,000 children being forced to attend altogether. Public records show that 12 unidentified students were confirmed to have died while attending the school between 1904 and 1913.

The three-storey, wood-frame school was demolished shortly after it closed because of fire safety concerns. In its place now stands the St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School, a private Catholic school. A news conference Tuesday was held in the parking lot, with dozens of elders and other supporters looking on. Many wore orange shirts to commemorate the Indigenous children who were taken from home and sent away to the schools.

In late May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced that it had located up to 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, galvanizing the country and reigniting calls for accountability for the horrors inflicted upon Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools.

Since then, searches at other former residential school sites have turned up more than 1,000 additional unmarked graves, including 751 at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

Nahanee attended the former St. Paul's Indian Residential School for 10 years and the Kamloops Indian Residential School for one year. He was one of 18 family members forced into the schools.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Khelsilem said the investigation will happen in phases, beginning with formal interviews with survivors who attended the school and the gathering of records, including from government and the Catholic Church. There will then be a field investigation of the site with remote sensing searches, which may involve the same type of ground-penetrating radar that was used at the Kamloops and Marieval residential school sites.

Meanwhile, the federal government says it will commit $321-million in new funding for Indigenous communities and appoint an independent official who will help guide the identification and protection of unmarked graves at former residential school sites, but not be involved in criminal investigations.

Among those watching Tuesday’s announcement was Willie Nahanee, 79, who attended the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School for 10 years and the Kamloops Indian Residential School for one year. He was first taken at 6 – one of 18 family members forced into the schools.

Mr. Nahanee acknowledged the abuse he experienced – he and others would regularly be hit with a strap while kneeling, he remembers – and yet, many decades later, he has found some forgiveness in his heart.

“I can forgive the nuns,” he said. “But the government, they are not forgiven until the day they do it right, they make it right, for all Indigenous people. Because the harm that was done through the residential schools is only a reflection of what was started on Indian reserves. … This was all done intentionally, the harm, the wickedness, the atrocity.”

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Chief Jen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation said she is hopeful the investigation will bring some closure for survivors, families and elders.

“When it was first discovered what happened in Kamloops, our community started to talk about this school specifically, and what we’re going to do about it, when we’re going to do it,” she said. “So I’m glad that Squamish included us in this work, and acknowledged our survivors, acknowledged our families and how close our three nations are.”

Ms. Thomas wore an orange shirt with a black-and-white photo of dozens of children and five nuns standing in front of the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School. In the front row, a little boy is circled. Her father. He has never spoken about his experience.

“I’m not going to ask him until he talks to us first about it,” she said.

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