WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The Stó:lō Nation in B.C.'s Fraser Valley says its probe into missing children and unmarked burials has so far identified, with certainty, 158 children who died at or because of their attendance at three former residential school sites and one former hospital.
Preliminary findings from ground-penetrating radar also suggest numerous anomalies that could be unmarked graves at St. Mary's Residential School in Mission, according to the Nation's research team.
"The heaviness of the work today cannot be summed into words," said Chief David Jimmie, president of the Stó:lō Nation.
Officials with the nation provided a public update over the work on Thursday afternoon at the site of Pekw'xe:yles (St. Mary's Residential School), about 60 kilometres east of Vancouver.
According to archival research and interviews conducted by the Nation, 37 children died at or due to their attendance at Coqualeetza Industrial Institute/Residential School in Chilliwack, 20 died at St. Mary's, five died at All Hallow School in 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 due to illnesses like tuberculosis and pneumonia, or complications thereof, said project lead Amber Kostuchenko, emotion rising in her voice.
Of those, 79 died of tuberculosis at Coqualeetza Indian Hospital, said Kostuchenko.
Three children at Coqualeetza reportedly died due to injuries, and the cause of death for the other 21 deaths is not yet known, said Kostuchenko.
Yamatemathexwi, also known as Matsqui Chief Alice McKay, right, stands on the foundation of the former St. Mary's Indian Residential School building in Mission, B.C., on Feb. 8. Naka:man, also known as Leq’á:mel Coun. Darrel McKamey, stands at left. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
'This is justice,' says survivor
In December 2021, the Stó:lō Nation announced a three-year plan to search the grounds of the four institutions.
The undertaking by the Stó:lō was launched following news that ground-penetrating radar located what are believed to be more than 200 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops in May 2021.
Similar searches and findings have or are taking place in several provinces across Canada.
Jimmie, Grand Chief Doug Kelly, and survivors said the work is about honouring their ancestors and survivors, not simply tallying the number who died.
"This isn't a victory. This isn't a win. This is justice. This is a validation of what me and my people have gone through in residential schools driven by the government 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 on Thursday.
"The hurt and the pain the generations have faced is now coming to the surface, and this is the part of the truth that Canada must face."
A man waves an Every Child Matters flag at a ceremony to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation at the site of the former St. Mary's Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C., on Sept. 30, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Evidence of starvation, forced burials
Archival research, reviewing oral histories and interviews with survivors also shed light on the extent of the emotional, physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as neglect and malnourishment that children experienced at these institutions, Kostuchenko said.
She said the research team heard cases of children being killed, secretive burials of children and babies, furnaces being used to cremate bodies and children being forced to bury other children.
The team also heard stories and found evidence of children being intentionally infected with tuberculosis and other disease as punishment, being forced to eat moldy food, and forced labour, she said.
One story included firefighters responding to a fire at the St. Mary's girls' dormitory and finding remains of fetuses in the walls, added Kostuchenko.
The devastating findings confirm what residential school survivors and community members have long known, said Jimmie and Kelly.
"Our people are carrying mixed emotions. We're on a journey to confirming the truth that we carry in our DNA. We're on a journey to discover facts about what we have already heard from our great grandparents, our grandparents, past chiefs and leaders, about what took place in residential schools," said Kelly.
"We know, in here, that some of those children never made it home," he added, pointing to his heart.
Chief David Jimmie says Indigenous communities need more access to archival documents and long-term funding to continue identifying and locating those who died at residential schools. (Martin Diotte/CBC)
Calls for increased funding, transparency
In December 2021, the Stó:lō First Nation said it put in place a team called Xyolhmet ye Syewiqwelh (Taking Care of Children) to study archival, oral historical and on-site remote sensing work in search of identifiable unmarked graves at the four sites.
The nation says it also used remote sensing and imaging technologies including drone-based lidar (light detection and ranging) surface mapping and photogrammetry, as well as ground-penetrating radar, to search for unmarked graves.
"Major goals of our work are to identify Stó:lō children who were sent to residential schools — anywhere — and did not return home," said a statement on the nation's website in March 2022.
The team has retrieved more than 35,000 documents from provincial archives, the Royal B.C. Museum and other records vaults, but Kostuchenko estimates it is only about half of the documents it needs to complete its mandate.
Jimmie called on the federal government to provide long-term funding to First Nations pursuing this work and work to make it easier for Nations to access necessary documentation from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.
"It is unreasonably restrictive to Indigenous nations seeking access to control their information held by the national centre," said Jimmie.
More than 150,000 children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the final 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 large numbers of Indigenous children who were sent to the institutions never returned home. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says around 4,100 children died at the schools, based on death records, but adds that the true total is likely much higher.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.