By James Rose

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

First Nations with former Indian Residential School and Indian Hospital sites in or near their communities can now access the B.C. residential school response fund with the added support of two newly appointed First Nations liaisons.

The B.C. government has appointed Charlene Belleau (herself a residential school survivor) and Lydia Hwitsum as First Nations liaisons, respected leaders who bring the experience, relationships and expertise needed to advance this critical work.

“I’ve known Charlene for years,” said Shuswap Band Chief Barb Cote. “She’s the perfect person for the role. When she was working with the health authority, I worked with her. She’s very diplomatic, organized and was a pleasure to go into a meeting with. She listens, and she kept us on track.”

In a press release, the government asserts that the liaisons will support caretaker communities to connect with provincial and federal agencies, provide advice to the provincial government on former residential school and hospital sites, and serve as a crucial communications link between communities and the provincial government.

“Today, we stand with former students, survivors, intergenerational survivors and their families,” Belleau said in a press release. “We are ready to support communities as they do the difficult work of honouring the spirits of the children who never came home. I am pleased to take on this role and support leaders, former students of residential schools and their families in their journey to bring truth, justice and healing.”

“This is an important step for B.C. to help support First Nations as we proceed with this important and heartfelt work,” Hwitsum said. Hwitsum has more than 20 years of experience in leadership positions in Indigenous governance in B.C. and Canada.

The $12-million fund announced last month to support work at former residential care sites is now open for expressions of interest from caretaker communities – those with former residential school or hospital sites in or near their communities. The provincial government will expedite the review of these requests to make sure communities can access these resources when they are ready to undertake work at sites. No deadline is attached to the grants.

In B.C., there were 18 Indian Residential Schools and three Indian Hospitals. The nearest to the Columbia Valley was the St. Eugene Mission Residential school which operated from 1890 to 1970. On June 30, the
Aqam First Nation announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves using the assistance of ground-penetrating radar.