Trudeau in Williams Lake Wednesday to “walk with them on the path of healing”

Editor’s note: This article contains details some readers may find distressing

Emotional support or assistance for those who are affected by the residential school system can be found at Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1 (800) 721-0066 or 24-hr Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419.

The chief of the Williams Lake First Nation wants healing in his community and says a visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Wednesday will be another step in that direction.

It’s the first visit for the prime minister to the community in B.C.’s interior after 93 “reflections” were discovered using ground-penetrating radar outside a former residential school. The preliminary search leads experts to suggest the reflections displayed characteristics of human burials.

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars is thankful the Prime Minister is coming, but says they’re looking for long-term support from the federal government.

St. Jospeh's Mission Residential School

A distant view of school buildings and grounds at the St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School in Williams Lake in 1949. (Courtesy bac-lac.gc.ca)

That includes funding to support their investigation from start to finish, and for healing as findings of unmarked graves across Canada trigger difficult memories and conversations for survivors, their families and communities.

“We are still going to hold him accountable and make sure he does commit to some of the things we are asking for, and that he doesn’t forget us when he does go back to Ottawa. Because we are still going to need support here, not only for ongoing funding for this investigation, but for some other things we are doing in this territory,” Sellars said Monday.

Trudeau will tour the grounds of St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School where a preliminary search was conducted last year using ground-penetrating radar. Only a small portion of the site has been searched to date.

A map of a vast search area to find remains of missing children from the residential school in Williams Lake

The Williams Lake First Nation determined that it would have to search a wider area than initially though after speaking with survivors. (Credit: WLFN)

St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School opened in 1891 by Roman Catholic missionaries, the Canadian government took over in its final decades until the institution was closed in 1981.

It was also known as the Cariboo Residential School.

A photo of Indigenous children in a school in B.C.'s interior which was operated by the Catholic Church

The Cariboo school was opened by Roman Catholic missionaries in 1891. (Credit: nctr.ca)

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has collected historic records from the institution, as well as accounts from survivors, which tells of horrific neglect and abuse against children who were forced to attend.

In 1902, nine boys ran away from the school to escape the abuse. One of the boys, Duncan Sticks, froze to death after school officials called off the search. He was eight years old.

“In the 1980s and 1990s two former staff members pled guilty to charges of sexually abusing students in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1998, a former principal apologized to a former student and school employee who had charged him with a series of sex offences,” the centre wrote online.

The Canadian government has formally apologized for its role in operating the institutions, but the prime minister says he knows there is more to do to.

“We need to show that we are there with them, to walk with them on the path of healing and reconciliation and build a better future for us all. This is something that we are committed to as a government. It’s something that I look forward to engaging with the residents of Williams Lake First Nation tomorrow, because this country will continue its journey on the path of reconciliation hand in hand with Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Vancouver ahead of the trip.

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The visit comes as Indigenous delegates are in Rome this week to seek an apology from Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for its role in the residential schools, as well as the records in order to assist the investigation into identifying those in the unmarked graves across the country.

Leaders from the Métis and Inuit nations said the first meetings appeared to be positive, with the Pope listening to the impacts the institutions have had on their cultures. However, the Pope did not formally apologize.

First Nations delegates and survivors will meet with the Pope on Thursday, and a larger meeting between all three groups will be held Friday.

With files from Michael Williams

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