WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — A former British Columbia residential school site being investigated as a possible location of unmarked graves has been purchased by the Williams Lake First Nation with the help of the provincial government.
Buying the private property will ensure the integrity of the ongoing investigation and allow the First Nation to consider how to honour both the children who disappeared and those who were taken from their families to attend the school, Chief Willie Sellars said Tuesday.
"It has long been the goal of Williams Lake First Nation's current and previous councils to see this property preserved and protected," Sellars said in a statement.
He said the return of the property to the control and stewardship of Indigenous people is an important step to commemorate the history and legacy of the residential school system in B.C.
A First Nation investigator said last January there was evidence of crimes against children. Two separate investigations using ground-penetrating radar at the former school site had detected 159 possible unmarked graves.
The Catholic-run school operated from 1891 to 1981 near Williams Lake, located about 500 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.
First Nations in B.C. have taken different approaches to former residential schools on their territories, with Alert Bay and Lower Post demolishing the sites, while nations in Kamloops and Williams Lake decided to keep the buildings.
B.C.'s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Ministry said the Williams Lake First Nation purchased the 5.5 hectare property for $1.2 million from private owners, with an $800,000 contribution from the province.
Murray Rankin, B.C.'s Indigenous relations and reconciliation minister, said in a statement that residential school survivors and their families say the sites are of great significance and they must be protected.
"The return of these lands will support the process of truth telling, healing and remembrance as it will ensure future generations know the true history of this site and its impact on the generations of children who were forced to come here," he said.
Indigenous children from almost 50 communities were taken to St. Joseph's Mission.
The B.C. Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Ministry says in the 1980s and 1990s there were three high-profile criminal convictions for physical and sexual assault that took place at St. Joseph's Mission.
The investigation at St. Joseph's was launched after ground-penetrating radar located what are believed to be more than 200 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops in May 2021, prompting similar searches and findings in several provinces.
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documented the experiences of those affected by Canada's residential school system, found at least 4,100 children died while attending the institutions.
— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2023.
The Canadian Press