Lifting up the survivors of the St Joseph’s Mission Residential School, the Williams Lake First Nation, and those who did not get to come home

Yesterday, the Williams Lake First Nation released the preliminary geophysical results from the first phase of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School investigation.

To start the announcement in a good way, the Nation invited their elders and former Chiefs, Shirleen and Nancy to start with the Children’s Prayer.

“I will say a prayer for the children who cry,

for the children who wake up hungry and go to bed hungry,

for the children who are missing and for those who are lost,

for the children who suffer alone because they have no-one who cares,

for the children that no-one loves.

I will pray for these children.”

The Children’s Prayer

14 out of 470 hectares that have been identified as areas of interest were probed with ground-penetrating radar and aerial and terrestrial LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, leading to the identification of 93 sites that suggest burials.

So much emotionally gruelling work has been done – by the Williams Lake First Nation, by all survivors – to heal from these institutions, these abuses, these laws, these failures to acknowledge the humanity of First Nations people, to recognize their essential preciousness as individuals. Too much work on their shoulders.

Dr Gabor Mate has said that all of Western medicine is built on getting rid of pain, which is actually not the same as healing. Healing is the capacity to hold pain.

I think that is the invitation here… for those of us who are not Indigenous.. to grow our capacity to hold pain, to witness these truths, and integrate them into our understanding of what this country is, what it’s capable of, of what the church is, and is capable of, of what humans are capable of. One thing that is landing more and more deeply for me is that Indigenous people are capable of far more resilience and grace than I ever imagined would be possible, in the face of deeply intentional efforts to erase them and to harm them. And people wearing the cloak of respectability, priests and nuns and teachers and police officers and bureaucrats and Prime Ministers and legislators, are capable of far more cruel and sinister behaviour than easily fits my paradigm.

Like the photo caption says, “nothing says more about the residential schools than the fact that they are the only schools on the planet where the alumni are called survivors, not graduates.”

My heart aches in such an unfamiliar and uncomfortable way, when I read the story below, get glimpses of the details. And I think, in some ways, that is my task. To ache and offer my version of a prayer, for the children, for what they lost, for what was taken from them. For what this entire experiment of a country lost, in choosing to go down this path, instead of seeing the inherent sacredness and beauty and value in every one of those children, those communities, and the Nations that belong to these lands.

Mend and Make Amends fabric patch by @TheFarWoods, integrated into quilt by @melina.fiberart.

May we mend and make amends, as we keep moving forward. May we all contribute to healing. May we do no more harm.

If you need emotional support, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419

CBC reported the story as extracted below:

(Trigger warning, graphic details)

WLFN Chief Willie Sellars described the findings as part of a “reawakening” for Indigenous people about the lingering traumas of the residential school system.

“This reawakening in Indian country has allowed us to start the process of healing,” he said. 

Sellars said that discovery “forced Canadians to acknowledge the reality of residential schools” and created unprecedented support for efforts to uncover the truth about the systemic abuses supported by the Canadian government, churches and the RCMP.

“There can be no reconciliation before there is truth,” he said during a news conference.

‘The darkest recesses of human behaviour’

Many of the WLFN’s members were forced to attend St. Joseph’s, which opened in 1891 and operated until 1981. It began as an industrial school and later grew to include Onward Ranch, which was acquired in 1964 to sustain the school.

The vast majority of school buildings have been torn down since its closure four decades ago.

The First Nation’s investigation over the last nine months has included archival research and extensive interviews with survivors, in addition to the geophysical work, Sellars said.

“This journey has led our investigation team into the darkest recesses of human behaviour,” he said.

The team heard stories of disappearances, murders, systematic torture, rape and starvation of children, according to Sellars. There were accounts of children who were tied to boards and lashed, and newborn babies fathered by priests tossed into the school’s incinerator.

Some members of the church’s leadership, including Father Harold McIntee, were later convicted of sexual offences against the students.

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars attends a community gathering to mark the beginning of the search of the school grounds on Aug. 30, 2021. (Laureen Carruthers)

Sellars said that there were reports of children disappearing from the school or dying on its grounds while it was still in operation, but those stories were “intentionally obscured” through destruction of records and cover-ups by governments, church authorities and police.

“Reports were at best given no credence,” he said. “At worst there was something darker going on to suppress the truth.”

Sellars also recounted the stories of Duncan Sticks, an eight-year-old boy who froze to death while trying to escape St. Joseph’s in 1902, and Augustine Allen, a nine-year-old who died from ingesting hemlock in 1920 as part of a suicide pact with nine other children.

Survivor remembers ‘atrocities’

Physical, emotional and sexual abuse of St. Joseph’s students was also documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Bev Sellars, who comes from a neighbouring community, was a student there from 1962 to 1967, after both her mother and grandmother were also forced to attend. 

She says those five years, during which her language, culture and family were all torn away from her, were traumatizing.

She says it’s important to bring to light what darkness happened at St. Joseph’s.

“We need to make sure that Canada knows about these atrocities that happened at these schools,” said Sellars.

In anticipation of distress caused by Tuesday’s news, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society says it has brought in extra staff who will be working all night to provide support to survivors who need it.

“One thing that we’re just going to be watching for, I think, is just making sure that each and every person that reaches out makes a real live connection,” executive director Angela White said.

Bev Sellars, a member of the Xatśūll First Nation, located close to the Williams Lake First Nation, attended the school in the 1960s. (CBC)

The society’s support services can be reached by phone at any time by calling 1-800-721-0066.

It is estimated that more than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1997.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) estimates about 4,100 children died at the schools, based on death records, but has said the true total is likely much higher. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

Last week, the federal government announced it will transfer thousands more documents related to residential schools to the NCTR in Winnipeg.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said a new agreement with the centre outlines how and when the documents will be sent so the organization can make them available to residential school survivors.


Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

One thought on “Lifting up the survivors of the St Joseph’s Mission Residential School, the Williams Lake First Nation, and those who did not get to come home

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