Federal funding to go towards former residential school investigation

By Chadd Cawson
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The possibility of burial sites at St. Joseph’s Mission residential school hits close to home. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Williams Lake on Mar. 30, as evidence suggests there may be unmarked graves on the former residential school site. Trudeau also sat down with Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation, and residential school survivors to discuss accountability, and the government’s role in residential schools.  

Trudeau agreed to the visit nearly two weeks prior to his arrival to Williams Lake on Mar. 30. In a CBC news article by Courtney Dickson on Mar. 30, Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars stated, “We’re thankful that the Prime Minister is making the trip to visit Williams Lake First Nation. The trip has been a long time in the making, and we have much to discuss about the St. Joseph’s Mission investigation, and Canada’s commitment to the goals of reconciliation.”

It was announced this past January by Williams Lake First Nations that ground penetrating radar detected 93 reflections which can potentially mean there are 93 human burials on the former St. Joseph’s Mission residential school site near Williams Lake. While visiting Williams Lake on Mar. 30 Prime Minister Trudeau announced that $2.9 million in federal funding would partly go towards the further investigation of these potential burials on the land where St. Joseph’s mission once stood. 

With Chief Willie Sellars standing at his side, on Mar. 30 Prime Minister Trudeau was quoted in a CBC News article stating the following: “Canada is committed to continuing funding for the Williams Lake First Nation in its continued search for truth and healing and closure.”

The former site of St. Joseph’s Mission is less than a nine-hour drive from the Secwépemc (Shuswap) Band office in Invermere. The former residential school sat on 470 hectares of land, and at this time only 14 of those have been searched.  Shuswap Nation survivors of St. Joseph’s Mission include Phyllis Jack Webstad the founder of the Orange Shirt Day movement, which operates out of Williams Lake. 

Webstad attended St. Joseph’s Mission from 1973-1974 when she was six years old. In Sean Stiller’s 2021 documentary Returning Home, Webstad describes her experience at St. Joseph’s to a class of elementary school children as “pee your pants terror.” Returning Home played at the Invermere Film Festival three days prior to this announcement with some local Shuswap Indian Band members in attendance.

During the funding announcement at Williams Lake First Nation on Mar. 30, CBC news quoted Chief Sellars speaking from the heart. “It’s really hard not to get emotional on days like this. We hold up those survivors, those elders, and we honour them and allow them to share this really cool moment with the leader of this country, and with our community, while at the same time holding up our Secwépemc (Shuswap) heritage.” 

The $2.9 million funding will also be aimed at supporting survivors, and a community along with others across the nation that will face trauma once again from the heart wrenching discovery of 93 reflections found on the former site of St. Josephs.