WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
The Stó:lō Nation in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley says its investigation into missing children and anonymous burials has so far identified, with certainty, 158 children who died in or because of their attendance at three former residential schools and one former hospital.
Preliminary ground-penetrating radar findings also suggest numerous anomalies that could be unmarked graves at St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission, according to Nation’s research team.
“The heaviness of the current work cannot be summed up in words,” said Chief David Jimmie, president of the Stó:lō Nation.
Nation officials provided a public update on the work Thursday afternoon at the Pekw’xe:yles (St. Mary’s Residential School) site, about 60 kilometers east of Vancouver.
According to archival research and interviews conducted by The Nation, 37 children died during or because of their attendance at Coqualeetza Industrial Institute/Residential School in Chilliwack, 20 died at St. Mary’s, five died at All Hallow School at Yale, and 96 children between Ages five and 20 died at the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital.
The vast majority of children (133 of 158) were reported to have died from diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, or complications thereof, said project leader Amber Kostuchenko, emotion in her voice.
Of them, 79 died of tuberculosis at the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital, Kostuchenko said.
Three children in Coqualeetza reportedly died from injuries, and the cause of death of the other 21 is still unknown, Kostuchenko said.
‘This is justice,’ says survivor
In December 2021, Stó:lō Nation announced a three-year plan to register the lands of the four institutions.
The Stó:lō company was launched following news that ground-penetrating radar located what is believed to be More than 200 graves at former residential school in Kamloops in May 2021.
Similar searches and findings have been or are being conducted in several provinces in Canada.
Jimmie, Grand Chief Doug Kelly and survivors said the work is about honoring their ancestors and survivors, not simply counting the number of dead.
“This is not a victory. This is not a victory. This is justice. It is a validation of what my people and I have gone through in government-driven boarding schools with the backbone of the Church,” said Cyril Pierre . , a member of the Katzie First Nation and survivor of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, in a statement Thursday.
“The hurt and pain that generations have faced is now coming to the surface, and this is the part of the truth that Canada must face.”
Evidence of starvation and forced burials
Archival research, review of oral histories and interviews with survivors also shed light on the extent of emotional, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as neglect and malnutrition that children experienced in these institutions, Kostuchenko said.
He said the investigation team heard cases of children being murdered, secret burials of children and babies, ovens used to cremate bodies and children being forced to bury other children.
The team also heard stories and found evidence of children intentionally being infected with tuberculosis and other diseases as punishment, being forced to eat moldy food and performing forced labor, he said.
One story included firefighters responding to a fire in the St. Mary’s girls’ dormitory and finding remains of fetuses in the walls, Kostuchenko added.
The devastating findings confirm what residential school survivors and community members have long known, Jimmie and Kelly said.
“Our people have mixed emotions. We are on a journey to confirm the truth that we carry in our DNA. We are on a journey to discover facts about what we have already heard from our great-grandparents, our grandfathers, previous bosses and leaders, about what happened in residential schools,” Kelly said.
“We know here that some of those children never made it home,” he added, pointing to his heart.
Call for more funding and transparency
In December 2021, the Stó:lō First Nation said it had created a team called four sites. .
The nation says it also used remote sensing and imaging technologies, including photogrammetry and drone-based lidar (light detection and ranging) surface mapping, as well as ground-penetrating radar, to search for unmarked graves.
“The main objectives of our work are to identify Stó:lō children who were sent to residential schools (anywhere) and did not return home,” he said a declaration on the nation’s website in March 2022.
The team has recovered more than 35,000 documents from the provincial archives, the Royal British Columbia Museum and other records vaults, but Kostuchenko estimates they are only about half of the documents he needs to complete his mandate.
Jimmie called on the federal government to provide long-term funding to First Nations to carry out this work and work to make it easier for Nations to access necessary documentation from the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
“It is unreasonably restrictive for Indigenous nations seeking access to control their information held by the national center,” Jimmie said.
More than 150,000 children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1997. The institutions were created by the Canadian government to assimilate indigenous people, in part by forcibly separating children from their parents.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said a large number of Indigenous children who were sent to institutions never returned home. The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation says about 4,100 children died in schools, according to death records, but adds that the actual total is probably much higher.
Support is available to anyone affected by their experience in residential schools and those affected by the latest reports.
A national Indian residential school crisis line has been created to provide support to alumni and those affected. People can access crisis and emotional referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.