British Columbia

B.C. First Nations launch collaborative investigation into former St. Paul's Indian Residential School

Three B.C. First Nations will work together to investigate the former St. Paul's Indian Residential School and what happened to the children who attended but never returned home.

More than 2,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the school during its 60-year operation

A black-and-white picture of a group of nuns, lined up along with dozens of Indigenous kids.
An archival photo of some of the children that attended the former St. Paul's Indian Residential School, located in what is now North Vancouver. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Three B.C. First Nations say they will work together to investigate the former St. Paul's Indian Residential School in North Vancouver and what happened to the children who attended but never returned home.

The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam Nation) and the səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation) said they will work in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver to uncover documents about the school.

More than 2,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the school during its operation from 1899 to 1959.

It was run by the Catholic Church. 

St. Paul's was Metro Vancouver's only residential school, located in present-day North Vancouver, next to the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh community of Eslhá7an. St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School, a private Catholic school, currently operates on the site.

Leaders say it's unclear exactly how many children did not come home from the school, but public records show 12 unidentified students died while attending the school between 1904 and 1913.

School described as a 'death-trap' and a 'fire-trap'

According to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, two children were hospitalized with smallpox in 1929. Two years later, the local Indian agent reported that he suspected the children at the school were not being fed properly. The centre says that in 1933, the Indian commissioner for British Columbia described the school as a "'death-trap' and a 'fire-trap.'"

Khelsilem, spokesperson and councillor for the Squamish Nation council, said there are two calls to action from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report findings that must be implemented at the St. Paul's residential school site. 

First, he said the federal government must work with other agencies to implement strategies for identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration and protection of burial sites at residential schools. And second, that work must be led by the First Nations most affected, ensuring that cultural protocols will be respected and information would be sought from survivors and knowledge keepers.

"This sacred and healing work is very difficult, but it's important," he said. 

"We are seeking information because there are many unknowns.

Səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ Chief Jen Thomas said this work has been on the minds of community members since Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced the approximately 200 potential burial sites identified at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

"When we talk about the residential schools, some may think it goes way back in our history, but it doesn't," she said. 

"My dad went to St. Paul's Indian Residential School."

She said that was 50 years ago.

"I'm grateful he survived, or else I wouldn't be here today."

Willie Nahenee, 79, was one of 18 members of his family forced to attend St. Paul’s. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Unlike other former residential school site investigations, ground-penetrating radar cannot be used at the site because of extensive development of the land over the last 60 years. Instead, leaders say the investigation will be done through interviews, record gathering and remote sensing.

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or know someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at: or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

Willie Nahenee, 79, is trying to help with that. He was one of 18 members of his family forced to attend St. Paul's.

He's drawn a map of the school grounds and he says he's heard the stories of children who died there.

He says its important for the investigations to take place and for sites like these to be remembered and honoured.

"Those that have been lost [can] now [be] returned to their families," Nahenee said. "By finding them, it's like finding your lost child and your heart starts healing again."

Gathering records

Khelsilem said the nations don't currently have all archival material, including school records and reports. They're working to collect as much as they can from the federal government and from the church. 

"Our challenge has been at a bureaucratic level in accessing and only receiving piecemeal information … whereas we are looking for all relevant information related to St. Paul's," he said.

Residential school survivor Jason Nahanee created a memorial at the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School site after the discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C. (Benoit Ferradini/Radio-Canada)

Earlier this summer, Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller issued a formal apology to First Nations following the preliminary findings at Kamloops Indian Residential school site.

A representative from the Archdiocese of Vancouver said the archbishop made a commitment to provide First Nations taking on these types of investigations with all documents related to residential schools.

 "Whether or not unmarked graves are found, there is enough documented oral and archival evidence to say that these burials do or did exist," Khelsilem said.

Searches at former schools across Canada

On Tuesday, the federal government said it is committing $321 million for programs to help Indigenous communities search burial sites at former residential schools

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates about 4,100 children died at residential schools in Canada, based on death records, but says the total is likely much higher.

In the wake of the preliminary discovery in Kamloops in May, First Nations across Canada have begun searches at former residential school sites on their territories.

In June, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, which shut down in 1997.

The Lower Kootenay Band said a search using ground-penetrating radar had found what are believed to be 182 human remains near a former residential school in Cranbrook.

The Penelakut Tribe in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands announced that more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves have been identified in the area, once home to the Kuper Island Residential School. The tribe did not say how the graves were found, whether children's remains are suspected of being buried there or whether ground-penetrating radar was used. 

The Williams Lake First Nation is also preparing to search the site of another former facility, St Joseph's Mission, which is located a few kilometres from the nation's community core and operated as a residential school between 1886 and 1981.

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 the Canadian Press, Karen Pauls