WILLIAMS LAKE, British Columbia — A First Nation in Canada says a preliminary geophysical investigation has identified 93 possible burial sites around the site of a church-run boarding school.
Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation said Tuesday that excavation would be needed to confirm the presence of human remains and much more work is needed to make final determinations.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools as an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society.
Canada’s government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indigenous leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
The investigation near Williams Lake comes after the use of ground-penetrating radar led to the discovery last year of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Sellars said 14 of 470 hectares around the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School had so far been examined as part of a process to discover what happened to children who did not return home.
Sellars said stories recounted by survivors suggest “many″ children who attended the school remain unaccounted for.
“Their bodies were cast into the river, left at the bottom of lakes, tossed like garbage into the incinerators,″ he said. “It is for those children and families that we grieve the most.″
Sellars said survivors from the Williams Lake First Nation and nearly a dozen nearby First Nations will get support to deal with what has been found.
Whitney Spearing, who led the project, said the 93 “reflections” readings have been categorized as having either a high or low probability of being human remains based on their location, surroundings and depth.
The St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School was opened by the Catholic Church in 1891 and operated until 1981.
First Nations representatives and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have urged Pope Francis to publicly apologize in Canada. The Vatican announced last year the pope would visit Canada this year. A date has not been announced.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.
The aim of the residential school system was to isolate young Indigenous Canadians from the influence of their homes and culture, which the government at the time considered inferior to mainstream Canadian society.