WARNING: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to readers.
Stó:lō Nation is advocating for more support from the federal government and religious organizations to further its research into unmarked graves and missing children at former Fraser Valley residential schools.
On Thursday (Sept. 21) at the former grounds of St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission, Stó:lō Nation’s Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh (Taking Care of Our Children) team presented findings from 18 months of archival and geophysical research, in addition to oral histories.
Through archival research, the team discovered 158 deaths of children at St. Mary’s in Mission, All Hallows School in Yale, as well as Coqualeetza Industrial Institute and Coqualeetza Indian Hospital in Chilliwack. Geophysical data also confirmed marked and potential unmarked graves associated with the St. Mary’s school and Coqualeetza hospital.
Research will continue going forward for the Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh (Taking Care of Our Children) team. Squiala First Nation Chief David Jimmie, who also serves as president of the Stó:lō Nation Chiefs’ Council, said the work does not come without challenges.
They include barriers to accessing information, financial support, legal barriers, and the lack of federal commitment to seeing the work through.
“It will take decades for this work to be completed by the communities all across Canada and we need an immediate commitment from the federal and provincial governments to a long-term ongoing sustainable funding agreement,” Jimmie said at Thursday’s announcement.
The research team has not yet been able to pour through the thousands of archival records, with some proving difficult to access.
Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre project manager Amber Kostuchenko spent 14 years completing residential school research for the federal government.
During her time as a government researcher, Kostuchenko says she was part of a team that created a database containing over one million individual documents about residential schools and associated institutions across Canada. The documents came from the Department of Indian Affairs, other federal departments and religious organizations involved in running the institutions.
“As researchers, we noted every student and every staff member that was named in every document we recorded when documents included information about child illnesses, deaths, and also sometimes information about child abuse,” Kostuchenko said.
Kostuchenko says having direct access to the federal database and the information it contains will vastly expedite the team’s research.
Jimmie says it makes no sense for the Canadian government to pay Indigenous nations to recreate a database themselves, rather than providing access.
“It’s a call upon us as political leaders, as advocates, to be able to call to the government and say [it’s] unacceptable – 100 per cent,” Jimmie said.
The team has also experienced challenges in accessing records from Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order of missionary priests who were involved in the operations at St. Mary’s throughout its run.
“When we’ve had direct conversations with their chief administrative officer, they claimed they no longer have any documents relevant to our work. They also have not been willing to facilitate direct communications with the Oblates fathers who may have direct knowledge of the operations of St. Mary’s. The lack of support from the administrative wing is contrary to the public announcements about wanting to support survivors and communities. I call them to reach out to us to establish a direct relationship with us and our team as we continue this work,” Jimmie said.
The presentation also revealed challenges with access to data from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg. Jimmie says the centre has been given the mandate to hold all relevant documents related to the residential school system in Canada and is restricted by the legislation that created it in the province of Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
“[It] is not operating under the First Nation principles of data sovereignty, ownership, control, access and possession. It is unreasonably restrictive to Indigenous nations seeking access to control of their information held by the National Centre. These two pieces of legislation must be removed or amended to remove these barriers and allow us to bring these documents and the knowledge they contain back to our communities,” Jimmie said.
In a news release, the Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh (Taking Care of Our Children) team says the first 18 months of research are only the beginning.
The National Residential School Crisis Line offers emotional support and crisis referral services for residential school survivors and their families 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.