Please note this piece includes information about residential schools that may be triggering for readers.
A new blanket has been wrapped around the shoulders of the Grieving Mother monument in Sechelt, as the shíshálh Nation begins to investigate the site of the former St. Augustine’s Indian Residential School.
An opening ceremony for the investigation on Feb. 21 included prayer songs, drumming and singing, shíshálh councillor Selina August told Coast Reporter the following day. It acknowledged “all of our survivors and letting them know this work is happening.”
“Drumming and singing is our medicine,” August said. “It’s to open up the work in a good way, and in a way that recognizes and acknowledges the work that’s going to happen over the next several months, however long that’s going to take… to just let everybody know that we’re all here for each other. It’s going to be a tough time.”
Part of the ceremony around the Grieving Mother was also to make sure shíshálh Nation members check in with one another, August said. “No one’s alone.”
On Feb. 18, shíshálh Nation announced it will begin to investigate the site of the former St. Augustine’s Indian Residential School for unmarked graves or ancestral remains.
The residential school in Sechelt was operational from 1904 until June 30, 1975. Between 1904 and 1924, the institution was run by the Sisters of Instruction of the Child Jesus, then the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1924 to 1969. The federal government managed and operated the school from April 1969 until its closure. The Government of Canada funded the institution for more than 70 years.
During that time, members of more than 50 First Nations attended the institution.
Five student deaths were recorded at the Sechelt residential school.
In June 2021, hiwus (Chief) Warren Paull told Coast Reporter those records are “not even close to the approximate number” of deaths at the institution. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented more than 4,100 Indigenous children who died at residential schools across Canada. Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said the numbers are likely much higher.
“It’s for our people,” August said of the investigation. “It’s to find the truth and to heal, put some closure on some of the trauma and experiences that survivors went through, and to just move forward.”
August is the descendant of a residential and day school survivor, and said the healing journey is also for the intergenerational trauma caused by the loss of their culture and language, although a lot of work has since been done to revive the language.
As the investigation begins this week, shíshálh Nation will take the lead and work with their long-term archaeological partners that include a professor from the University of Saskatchewan, August said. Ground-penetrating radar will be used to look for any inconsistencies in the grounds that once included the school and surrounding property.
The use of ground-penetrating radar at a former residential school site first made headlines in 2021, when Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that 215 possible unmarked graves had been found at the former Kamloops Residential School site. Since then, other First Nations have launched similar investigations and located more potential burial sites on former residential school grounds.
A Feb. 18 press release from the Nation said, “This is a very challenging time for all the Survivors who attended the institution, their families and communities, and for the shíshálh Nation. Our focus throughout this work will be on supporting Survivors and community members including through sacred ceremony and cultural practices.”
It asks the public for respect and privacy throughout the investigation.
August said the investigation ties in with the Nation’s healing journey that began with a class action lawsuit after day scholars were excluded from the Common Experience Payment for former residential school students. Last year, on June 9, a settlement agreement for day scholars was signed, following the class action lawsuit Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and shíshálh First Nations led against the federal government.
“To me, it’s all connected and all part of the journey,” August said. “This work that’s happening right now with the GPR [ground-penetrating radar] is just another phase of that.”
Sitting by the Grieving Mother statue, August motioned to where one of the last buildings associated with the residential school used to stand. Years ago, the Nation held a ceremony and burned the building down. Then came the class action lawsuit, and now the ground-penetrating radar.
“It’s all so powerful and yet saddening,” she said. “It really brings people back to thinking of just why. Why did it happen that way? Why were our people forced to go to these schools? And, you know, it didn’t have to be that way.”
shíshálh Nation will receive $475,000 from the provincial government and plans to apply for federal funding for the investigation as well, August said.
While it’s too soon to say what the investigation will reveal, August said the Nation will work with its experts and engage with the community of members and survivors to determine the next steps.
“It should be made clear that the results of the St. Augustine’s field investigations should in no way be seen to validate or invalidate the experiences of Survivors, or the knowledge held by families of those who attended,” the Nation’s Feb. 18 press release states. “Whether or not unmarked graves are found, there is enough documented oral and archival evidence to say that these burials do or did exist.”
August said this sentiment comes directly from the survivors, who have shared their experiences.
“It’s what we learned from our survivors: to bring out that truth.”
Support and key services will be provided by the Nation for survivors and their families.
Survivors and those impacted by residential schools can call the 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line for support services: 1-866-925-4419. Support is also available through Hope for Wellness helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or at hopeforwellness.ca.
– With files from Sophie Woodrooffe