Skip to main content

Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.

Willie Nahanee, 79, has found within himself the ability to forgive the nuns who taught him at the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in Vancouver for 10 years, as well as those who were his teachers for a year at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Seventeen of his family members were also taken away from their homes and forced into the schools. On Tuesday, Mr. Nahanee acknowledged the abuse he experienced. He and others would regularly be hit with a strap while kneeling, he remembers.

“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.”

Mr. Nahanee was attending an announcement by the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh nations, whose territories cover the Vancouver area. The three nations said they would commence an investigation into what happened to young band members who never came home from the St. Paul’s school.

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, and more than 2,000 children were forced to attend over the years. 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. Tuesday’s news conference was held in the school’s 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 residential schools.

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.”

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 1,200 additional unmarked graves, including 751 at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

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 governments 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.

The federal government announced Tuesday that it will provide $321-million to aid searches of former residential schools and to help survivors heal from their trauma.

The new funding from Ottawa will include $83-million for finding unmarked graves and memorializing victims. A national advisory committee will be formed to assist with the work. Among other commitments are $107.3-million for mental health and community supports, and $100-million to manage residential school buildings – either by demolishing them or adapting them into new structures, depending on the desires of Indigenous communities.

Many Indigenous leaders have been calling for an independent inquiry into what happened at the schools, including a criminal probe headed by experts other than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The government said Tuesday it would appoint an independent official – dubbed a “special interlocutor” – to liaise between Indigenous communities, governments and religious institutions in the continuing search for unmarked graves.

The official would recommend a “new legal framework” to govern the process of identifying and repatriating remains found at unmarked gravesites, but would not be able to conduct criminal investigations. The creation of the role was first reported by The Globe and Mail on Monday, and Ottawa has not yet announced who will take the job.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, law professor and academic director of the University of British Columbia-based Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, said she was encouraged by the prospect of an independent official being appointed.

An interlocutor should examine whether the Catholic Church violated the terms of its settlement with residential school survivors, Dr. Turpel-Lafond said. According to allegations in court filings by federal lawyers in 2014, Catholic Church officials had improperly redirected funds meant for residential school survivors and were in violation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a complex 2006 legal deal between the government, religious organizations and Indigenous groups.

The court case ended a year later when a judge released the Catholic entities from their remaining settlement obligations.

At that time, the church had raised just $3.7-million in what was meant to be a $25-million national fundraising campaign benefiting residential school survivors. A Globe investigation revealed the church has $4.1-billion in net assets across 3,446 charitable Catholic organizations and had taken in $886-million in donations in 2019.

Justice Minister David Lametti said an independent official could eventually examine whether the Catholic Church violated the settlement’s terms.

“These are things that Catholics like myself would like to see looked at again, would like to see reopened,” he said. “Certainly, all options are always on the table.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.