Authorities in Canada continue to discover what may be previously unknown graves of Indigenous children at former residential schools.
The latest discoveries of 66 possible graves are on the site of what was once St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake, British Columbia, about a six-hour drive north of Vancouver.
Earlier exploration with the use of ground-penetrating radar found 93 similar impressions last year. So far, only 0.18 square kilometers of the former school grounds have been investigated. This is out of nearly 8 square kilometers.
More than 150,000 First Nations children from the 1830s to as late as 1997 were forced to attend the schools. The schools were designed to forcibly integrate First Nation children into European culture. The institutions were paid for by the Canadian government and run by Catholic and other Christian churches.
So far, thousands of possible unmarked graves have been discovered across Canada. News of undiscovered graves first emerged in May 2021 when the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, announced it had found 215 possible unmarked graves.
Pope Francis visited Canada last year to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in how the schools operated.
Willie Sellars, chief of the Williams Lake First Nation, said word of more graves is gut-wrenching news.
“You know, we're almost conditioned to take that news and not react,” he said. “But all of us are continuing to hurt and know how we deal with our emotions and how we deal with our trauma is, of course, different in every single one of us.”
Sellars said the school’s impact was far-reaching, as students came from 48 First Nations.
He said exhumation might happen in the future but will have to be done in consultation with the different communities. DNA testing would be conducted before returning the remains to families.
Just before the announcement from Williams Lake, the Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation near Kenora, Ontario, announced it had discovered as many as 171 graves near another closed institution, St. Mary’s Residential School. Only five of the graves are marked.
Chief Chris Skead said because much of the area is undeveloped, hilly and now on private property, ground-penetrating radar will not always be feasible. The next step is to bring in cadaver dogs when the snow clears.
“Reason being is they wouldn't be as effective in the wintertime just due to the snow cover,” Skead said. “But come snow free, we're looking at utilizing … the cadaver dogs to search these heavily wooded areas that are still off site of the former residential school site.”
For Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, the continuing discoveries are no surprise. She said many of the 139 former schools have yet to be examined and that many of them have not had or used ground-penetrating radar.
“The numbers are going to continue to grow,” she said.
As part of the reconciliation process, the Canadian government has announced a $2 billion ($2.8 billion CAD) settlement to be administered by different First Nation communities whose members attended the schools.