“Big Step”: Williams Lake First Nation takes over former residential school grounds – British Columbia

Disclaimer: This story deals with a disturbing topic that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

Williams Lake First Nation acquires the lands of the former St. Joseph’s Mission residential school, an a*similation facility that operated in the Cariboo region for nearly a century.

The First Nation and the BC government purchased the 13.7-acre property from its private owners for $1.2 million, including $849,000 from the province.

“We keep talking about how we can heal as communities, we keep talking about how the government needs to step up, and it’s escalating dramatically in our eyes,” Ku̓kpi7 Willie Sellars said during the interview. a press conference on Tuesday.

“This is a big step forward… setting a precedent for what reconciliation can and should be in the province of British Columbia. »

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As with all boarding schools, St. Joseph’s history is fraught with sickening violence. Children from over 40 First Nations were sent there to be stripped of their Indigenous languages, cultures and identities.

The institution operated from 1891 to 1981 and has since been demolished. An additional property, the Onward Ranch, was added in 1964 to meet the operational needs of the school. The sites were mostly run by Roman Catholic missionaries.

According to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, one child froze to death after trying to escape from St. Joseph in 1902. Another died and eight others fell ill after eating poisoned water hemlock, what the parents believed to be a response to discipline at school.

In the 1980s and 1990s, two former staff members pleaded guilty to charges related to charges of s****lly abusing students.

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Williams Lake First Nation, however, has since unearthed more gruesome discoveries through its archival research and interviews with survivors and their descendants: harrowing stories of gang rape, pedophilia, confinement , exposure to extreme conditions, intentional starvation, slave labor and beatings. point of unconsciousness.

Using ground-penetrating radar scans, the First Nation detected 159 possible burial sites on the ground.

Sellars said the land transfer is consistent with this ongoing investigation.

“It gives us peace of mind knowing that we will be able to do this job unchallenged in the future,” he explained.

“We want to eventually get to a position where we dig up, we excavate, but there’s a process that we have to go through not only blocking off not only Williams Lake First Nation, but all the other affected nations as well. and maintain their ceremony and culture, as well as their students who also went to this school.

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The ku̓kpi7 said the First Nation’s intention is to preserve the site and make it a safe and comfortable place for communities, former students and their families to visit and hold ceremonies.

“Looking in the crystal ball at what this site will look like in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, would be how we would erect a monument and honor each of these survivors, each of us. children who have gone to this school, so that we can participate in this education for reconciliation that is taking place in this country and this region.

Residential school denial is still very much alive in Canada, he added, but communities like Williams Lake First Nation have evidence of the horrors that took place in the church-state-sponsored system. Protecting the site for educational purposes “will put those Holocaust deniers to bed,” Sellars said.

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Negotiations with the province to buy the land began in 2021, but conversations with its private landowners have been going on for decades, Sellars said, involving “several generations of leadership.”

Murray Rankin, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said the transfer of ownership ensures that the former grounds will be free from further development and can become a “place of reflection, remembrance and healing.” “.

“Across the province, Indigenous communities continue to search for missing children. It’s painful. It’s hard work and it has to be done,” he said.

“Where we can help, we will be there as allies. As a government, we have a responsibility to do our part to confront the uncomfortable truths of colonialism and that is what we will try to continue to do.”

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Rankin said the purchase of the former residential school grounds was a “unique opportunity” because few such sites are on private land in British Columbia.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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