Editor’s note: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to readers.
The Stó:lō Nation’s investigation to locate unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died at Fraser Valley residential schools is being developed.
Early estimates have it taking three years, requiring hundreds of hours of archival research, and using ground-penetrating radar on up to nine gravesites from three schools, according to David Schaepe, director and senior archaeologist of the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre.
“It’s hard work to do. It’s sensitive work to do. And it’s time that we do it,” Schaepe said. “It’s having a huge impact on the Indigenous communities, and I think it’s having a huge impact on society – and it should.”
Radar scans have confirmed over 1,100 unmarked graves at five residential schools in three provinces since May 28, when the first findings at Kamloops Residential School were publicly released.
While some Canadians have viewed these announcements as a shocking “discovery,” the existence of such graves have long been known to Indigenous peoples, Schaepe said.
His said work by his team, having over a hundred years experience working with Stó:lō communities, will not be rushed by the publicity. They will strictly follow the guidance and protocols of Stó:lō Cultural Advisors.
“Work like this takes time, and needs to be done properly,” Schaepe said. “And if it goes beyond three years, it’ll go beyond three years.”
One step at a time
The research team is working out costs prior to submitting an application to the Crown-Indigenous Relations Ministry, which recently announced $27 million to aid further investigations.
Early projections for their funding request are at around $3 million, but the total costs will run beyond what the federal government is currently offering.
Before any ground is touched, researchers will dig through archives and conduct oral-history research with elders – approximately 200 hours worth of work, Schaepe said.
This includes combing through “dozens and dozens” of archival sources – some accessible, some not – held by the provincial and federal governments, churches, and potentially the Vatican.
The next phase is radar, but the technology will not be used indiscriminately. Careful considerations will be taken to ensure valid and reliable results.
Although radar is very effective at detecting rectangular burial shapes, he said results can vary, particularly when it comes to soil type.
“We have to understand, if we’re going to apply (radar), what we can expect in terms of information,” Schaepe said. “The first question is presence or absence.”
The third phase involves commemorating the children who died at the school. Any further archaeological work beyond radar will be decided by Stó:lō’ Cultural Advisors.
St. Mary’s to start
The investigation will start with areas known to have cemeteries.
Schaepe said the first place to be surveyed with radar will be around the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) Cemetery on the outskirts of Mission’s Fraser River Heritage Park, the site of St. Mary’s Residential School’s second location.
A 1958 funeral photo held by the Mission Community Archives and displayed on an information board outside the cemetery show at least 12 graves on a sloping hill outside the current cemetery fence line.
These graves are now covered by a thick row of blackberry bushes. Several iron crosses of the same design as the 1958 photo lay detached along the graveyard’s perimeter.
Further sites of interest are St. Mary’s two other school locations, the Coqualeetza Residential School grounds in Chilliwack, and the All Hallows Residential School in Yale, according to Schaepe, but these graves will require research to track down.
For instance, the Coqualeetza grounds had a cemetery, but the remains were dug up and moved to three or four First Nations cemeteries in Chilliwack when the school closed in the 1940s.
“There’s no record of that. You have no record of where those children were buried to begin with, what the process was for exhuming them and moving them,” he said. “We need to pinpoint more precisely where that cemetery was located.”
The team will also be connecting with the chiefs and councils of the Squiala, Tzeachten, Soowahlie, Skowkale, and Shxwha:y Nations to inquire about other potential cemetery locations.
But the work will not just be limited to known graveyards – it’s simply a place to start.
Oral-historical research will play a larger part in determining locations beyond cemetery boundaries, according to Schaepe.
He said elder testimony describing non-formal burials is not uncommon among Stó:lō communities.
“The churches that established these cemeteries only allowed people to be buried inside the cemetery who were baptized, effectively,” Schaepe said.
“What’s remained in people’s memories can inform us about the histories in those places, and where we need to be potentially looking.”
The Record spoke with two elders who attended St. Mary’s Residential School in the 1950s. Both described burials and disappearances never spoken of at school.
“A child would simply disappear overnight. We’d get up in the morning and a child’s bed hadn’t been slept in,” said Mahlihatkwa Gwen Thierren, an elder from Xa’Xtsa Nation who attended St. Mary’s from 1947 to 1952.
“On the perimeter of (the cemetery), there were unauthorized graves that you’d see there – the ground was mixed.
“Nobody told us what happened to them. No one. You could get in real trouble just for asking.”
Clarke Smith, Hereditary Chief of the Samahquam Band, said the number of unmarked graves found at St. Mary’s will be similar to Kamloops Residential School, and there are still more graves to be located at that site.
Both elders said there are graves concealed beneath the blackberry bushes.
OMI releasing records
On June 25, following the announcement that 751 unmarked graves were detected at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the OMI released a statement promising to disclose historical documents to researchers.
They said the process is complicated by provincial and national privacy laws, and they are seeking guidance and instruction.
A joint statement with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was released on July 5, reiterating their commitment.
“We recognize our responsibility to Indigenous communities to ensure access to these records. We are committed to working with the NCTR to make it happen, including hiring additional support if necessary to ensure records are provided in a timely fashion,” said Fr. Ken Thorson, speaking for the OMI.
The OMI said their records include codices, photographs and staff files. They operated 48 residential schools in Canada.
The B.C. Society of Indian Residential School Survivors is offering toll-free telephone support for survivors at 1-800-721-0066.