Please note this story may contain information that is triggering to readers. Survivors and those impacted by residential schools can call the 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line for support services: 1-866-925-4419. Support is also available through Hope for Wellness helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or at hopeforwellness.ca.
A ground penetrating radar (GPR) investigation led by shíshálh Nation has identified 40 unmarked graves of children at the former site of St. Augustine’s Residential School in Sechelt.
The Nation shared the results of the investigation, part of the shíshálh Archaeological Research Project, on April 20 in a press release and op-ed written by hiwus yalxwemult (Chief Lenora Joe). The project includes interviews with survivors, documented historical events, as well as the GPR.
“We have always known the truth, our Elders have told us and we always believed them. We want to show the little ones to know we haven’t forgotten them, we love them, and they are important,” yalxwemult said. “The children have spoken, and we are listening. We have heard their voices.”
The 40 graves are considered a “very conservative number, through all aspects of the research we strongly believe, there are many more,” Dr. Terry Clark, an associate professor of University of Saskatchewan, said. Since the land is in the middle of Sechelt, development in the years since has disturbed the area, only depending on GPR for data would be inaccurate and inconclusive.
Survivors have shared other methods of disposal of children’s remains at St. Augustine’s that would not be captured by GPR.
yalxwemult cautioned that the results of the research “should in no way be seen to validate or invalidate the experiences of Survivors, or the knowledge held by families from our community or the 51 Indigenous Nations whose children attended.” She also asks that people not focus on the numbers or lose sight of the impacts. “Please do not normalize this.”
“Not all the missing children have been found, and many will never be found. I could list the reasons, but my heart is heavy, my community is fragile. These children were my aunties and uncles that I never met, they never grew up, and decades later they are still lost children.
“Survivors in our community have shared that even if the children are lost, the connections are still there,” yalxwemult wrote.
The shallow graves were only large enough for the young to lay in the fetal position.
“We have heard accounts of children being forced to dig graves and bury their friends, siblings, and cousins. Take a moment to let that sink in,” yalxwemult wrote.
The residential institution in Sechelt operated from 1904 until June 30, 1975. Between 1904 and 1924, the institution was run by the Sisters of Instruction of the Child Jesus, then the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1924 to 1969. The federal government managed and operated the school from April 1969 until its closure, and funded the institution for more than 70 years. The building was burned down twice.
During that time, members of more than 50 First Nations attended the institution, including members of shíshálh Nation.
“Children attended St. Augustine’s from across BC and as far as Saskatchewan,” yalxwemult wrote. “These children were sent far from home because they were brave, they stood up for themselves, they escaped from residential schools near [their] homes, so they were sent further away.”
The exact location of graves will not be disclosed.
“We are still processing… These aren’t remains, they are our children,” yalxwemult wrote.
“This entire process has shaken me to the core, I have cried daily waiting for the results. I wanted to share the news with the world, in my own words, honouring my teachings, and the values of shíshálh Nation,” the Chief wrote.
shíshálh Nation announced its intention to investigate the former lands of St. Augustine’s in February 2022. The third phase of the shíshálh Archaeological Research Project is still being planned, and shíshálh Nation is asking for privacy as it focuses on healing.
“Some survivors have never spoken about their experiences. An innocent question to you, might be a triggering and offensive question to others. Please don’t ask,” yalxwelmult said.
“I understand the curiosity, but for now we want to pause, stand still, and reflect. For the children we have found ‘We are going to let them rest right now.’”
People are invited to show their support by wearing an orange shirt, flying flags at half mast, sending an email to GPRpublic@shíshálh.com and cherishing your children and families.