Tŝilhqot’in leaders say they want all affected First Nations to be part of the investigation at the former residential school site.
Tŝilhqot’in chiefs say they want a meaningful role in the investigation into a Williams Lake residential school but won’t meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he visits March 30.
Trudeau and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller are due to visit St. Joseph’s Mission, which opened in 1891 and closed in 1981.
At least one priest was jailed for sexual abuse at the school.
In a 2015 Truth & Reconciliation Commission report, student Rick Gilbert remembered the school as a loveless place.
“When you got hurt or got beat up or something, and you started crying, nobody comforted you. You just sat in the corner and cried and cried till you got tired of crying then you got up and carried on with life,” he said.
Now, local First Nations are investigating the site.
“This site investigation has already caused so much trauma in our communities,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, Tŝilhqot’in National Government Tribal Chair.
“It only adds to the trauma when we are treated like bystanders to a process that affects our families and our communities so deeply. Nobody speaks for our nation but us.”
What the Tŝilhqot’in want is a greater role in the site investigation to promote healing for Tŝilhqot’in survivors and families.
“We are asking for a meaningful planning role in this process so that our protocols, our leadership and our ceremonies are respected and honored,” Alphonse said.
But, if Trudeau and Miller visit the site, the chiefs won’t be there.
Instead, they’re calling on Ottawa to establish a planning committee for the St. Joseph’s site investigation — one that includes the chiefs, along with leadership from all affected First Nations.
The chiefs want the planning committee “to guide this sensitive work in a way that respects the culture and protocols of each nation.”
Alphonse further called on the federal and provincial governments “to recognize the special significance of the St. Joseph’s Mission grounds and take steps to secure these lands on behalf of all affected Nations as a sacred historical site.”
St. Joseph’s was the main residential school for the six Tŝilhqot’in communities as well as Nuxalk, Southern Dakelh, Northern Secwepemc and others.
The Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) said last year it would use ground-penetrating radar and other technologies to look for graves at the site.
At the time, WLFN manager of title and rights Whitney Spearing told Glacier Media while the school is gone, other buildings still stand on the now-private property.
Some would like to see them burned down or returned to Indigenous ownership, Spearing said. “There is definitely a sense of urgency,” she said.
But it’s essential not to disturb the property until investigations take place to protect the integrity of that work, Spearing added.
For immediate assistance to those who may need it, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.