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First Nations to search for children who didn’t come home from North Vancouver school

Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam announce Indigenous-led plan to confirm the oral histories
Willie Nahanee, 79, of the Squamish Nation, who attended the former St. Paul Indian Residential School for 10 years and the Kamloops Indian Residential School for one year, holds one of his class photographs from St. Paul, in North Vancouver, on Tuesday, August 10, 2021. The Squamish Nation, together with the support of the Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam First Nations and the Catholic Archdiocese will be launching an investigation into the former residential school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is offering toll-free 24-hour telephone support for survivors and their families at 1 (866) 925-4419. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society’s 24-hour line is available at 1-800-588-8717.

Three First Nations have launched an initiative to find answers about the children who once attended St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver but never made it home.

The Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam nations announced on Tuesday an Indigenous-led plan to confirm the oral histories told by St. Paul’s survivors about children who disappeared.

Squamish Nation representative Khelsilem said during a news conference they know current archives document a number of children died at the school, but the records are “piecemeal.”

More than 2,000 Indigenous children representing six nations attended the school between 1899 and 1959. Many of the children were then relocated to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains of more than 200 children were found in May.

Khelsilem said they have done some “very preliminary” work, but there have been significant developments at the location since the closure and it is currently the site of a Catholic high school.

Public records show 12 unidentified students died while attending the school between 1904 and 1913.

Their goal is to find the location of each of these children and bring them home to rest, the nations said in a joint news release.

A preliminary work plan proposes interviewing survivors who attended the school, gathering all records related to its history with the Catholic Church, and lastly, “remote sensing searches in defined areas of interest,” which could include ground-penetrating methods, Khelsilem said.

Khelsilem said there have been “bureaucratic” challenges in accessing complete records.

“It’s important to note that our people’s experiences with St. Paul’s Indian Residential School are well known, and healing is needed to move forward. This work is being done to respect and address both known and unknown knowledge, and is a critical part of reconciliation,” Khelsilem said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver is also supporting the nations in the search for answers, the news release said.

Tsleil-Waututh Nation elected chief Jennifer Thomas attending the news conference wearing an orange shirt with a picture of a group of students at the former residential school. Her father, as a young boy, stands in the front row.

“When we speak of residential schools, we think it’s way back in the day, but it’s not. It was just one generation ago, my dad,” she said.

“It didn’t happen a long time ago, not at all. I’m 53 years old and this just happened yesterday to me, just yesterday, it’s that close to our history here in North Vancouver.”

Most elders from her community attended the school, though she said some went to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The federal government announced Tuesday that it is adding $321 million to programs to help Indigenous communities search burial sites around former residential schools, help survivors or those with intergenerational trauma and commemorate those who died.

While Kamloops was the first to announce the remains of missing children were found, several other First Nations in Canada have since said suspected remains or unmarked graves were discovered around former residential schools in their territories.

—Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

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