Ottawa announces $2.9M in funding as Williams Lake First Nation investigates potential burial sites
Funding to support Phase 2 of nation's work, with 'more phases and more funding to come,' PM says during visit
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday announced $2.9 million in federal funding as the Williams Lake First Nation investigates the recent findings of potential burial sites on the grounds of a former residential school.
Speaking during a visit to the nation's territory on Wednesday, Trudeau said the funding will provide support for First Nations communities in B.C. whose children were taken from their families and sent to St. Joseph's Mission Residential School.
"Canada is committed to continuing funding for the Williams Lake First Nation in its continued search for truth and healing and closure," said Trudeau, standing alongside Chief Willie Sellars and Minister of Indigenous-Crown Relations Marc Miller.
"[The funding will go toward] supporting survivors, supporting a community that is being retraumatized — as so many are across the country — by the terrible findings of 93 reflections, knowing there are still so many more out there still to be found, to be remembered, to be honoured ... and we will be continued partners in this difficult moment as long as it takes."
In January, the Williams Lake First Nation announced that 93 sites of "potential human burials" were identified near the former St. Joseph's Mission residential school. Only 14 out of 470 hectares of land had been searched at that time.
Trudeau and Miller visited the nation on Wednesday. They met with elders and residential school survivors individually, grasping their hands and offering braids of sweetgrass, before visiting the former grounds of St. Joseph's Mission.
"It's really hard not to get emotional on days like this," Chief Willie Sellars said, speaking at the funding announcement.
"We hold up those survivors, those elders, and we honour them and we allow them to share this really cool moment with the leader of this country and with our community ... while at the same time holding up our culture and our Secwepemc heritage," he continued.
"It gives me hope moving forward that the things and the commitments that we talked about today are going to make that meaningful impact ... so we can move forward and expedite the healing process of First Nations in this country."
Tŝilhqot'in Nation declines invitation
Although members were invited to participate in the prime minister's visit, the Tŝilhqot'in Nation said it would not send representatives.
Tl'etinqox Chief Joe Alphonse said he and his nation have not been involved in the site search, other than being invited to "occasional" update meetings, despite repeatedly asking for a more inclusive and respectful approach to the site investigation.
"This is about doing our part to protect our ancestors, our Tŝilhqot'in way of doing things. We honour and respect the other nations and their protocols, and we only ask to be considered and protected as well," Alphonse said.
Sellars previously told CBC the second phase of the investigation will begin "soon," and will involve excavation and other multi-year projects that would require collaboration among First Nations.
"As we move into consecutive phases of work, it's going to be multiple nations that are going to be coming to the table and providing the input," Sellars said.
$320M for searches, support 'likely not enough'
Miller said he recognizes Canadians and the federal government need to do more to find and understand the truth of Canada's history in order to move toward reconciliation.
"The question I keep asking myself ... is what does a healed country look like? And I don't have the answer to that," Miller said Wednesday.
"We can't even begin to formulate an answer in cabinet and government without continuing to hear from survivors, their realities and what we need to do to move forward."
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In August, Canada committed more than $320 million toward residential school searches and support for survivors and their families. Miller said that amount is "likely not enough."
Trudeau said the funding announced Wednesday will be followed by "more phases and more funding," but did not specify how much.
The investigation at St. Joseph's came after ground-penetrating radar located what are believed to be more than 200 graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., last year.
The St. Joseph's institution was opened by the Roman Catholic Church in 1891 as an industrial school where Indigenous children were required to do labour like timber splitting and farming, Sellars said in January.
It remained open until 1981.
More than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1997. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has said at least 4,100 children died at the schools, though that number is likely much higher.
WATCH | 'All of Canada grieves with this community,' Trudeau says on his arrival:
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
With files from Shelley Joyce and CBC's The Early Edition