Representatives of First Nations, levels of government, and the Catholic Church have pledged to work together as an investigation begins on the site of the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver. Photo by Agnieszka Ruck

First Nations and Catholics working ‘shoulder to shoulder’ at North Vancouver residential school site

By  AGNIESZKA RUCK, Canadian Catholic News
  • August 11, 2021

An investigation is going ahead at the former site of St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, roughly where the parking lot sits at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School in North Vancouver.

Squamish Nation spokesperson Khelsilem (also called Dustin Rivers), made the announcement Aug. 10, saying the inquiry will begin in coming days and involve hearing personal accounts from survivors, collecting archival material about St. Paul’s, and a field search that could involve ground-penetrating radar or other technology.

“We know based off of the current archival information that we have that there are a number of children that attended the school that did not make it home,” he said, “but most of the information is piecemeal.”

press release from the Squamish Nation said public records show 12 unidentified students died while at St. Paul’s between 1904 and 1913, but the location of their remains is unknown.

His hope is the investigation will bring to light truths about the residential school, which operated from 1899-1959, and the students who attended it.

“We chose not to come out quickly as the other discoveries were coming to light. We wanted to take our time and care and wait for the right moment until we had everything in place.”

Having everything in place included making the healing of residential school survivors the top priority in any work going forward.

“Our intention here today is to begin a healing process for our survivors and for our people, for the survivors who attended St. Paul’s Indian Residential School but also the intergenerational survivors who live with and have felt the effects of the residential school system,” he said.

Rivers also made it clear this project is one that the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam First Nations are doing in collaboration with local Catholics and other community members.

“The three nations will be working together with the Catholic archdiocese” to follow the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action regarding residential schools where students may have died and to “honour and find those children who may not have gone home.”

James Borkowski, the archbishop’s delegate for operations, said the Archdiocese of Vancouver is “honoured with the opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder towards restoring knowledge, culture, and trust.”

Borkowski reiterated Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller’s apology to survivors and pledge made earlier this year to help Indigenous people in healing, access to documents, and providing scientific and professional supports in ways most meaningful to them.

The work has already begun. Within the last two months, some landscaping and construction due to damage done by tree roots has been underway on the property in collaboration between the Squamish First Nation, the archdiocese, and St. Thomas Aquinas school.

“It has been a true experience of partnership, with open and transparent communication and forward thinking,” said Borkowski.

Kevin Rivers, father of Dustin Rivers, is part of that preliminary work. “We are surveying the ground to make sure there’s nothing come up,” he told The B.C. Catholic.

He said participating in this effort is particularly meaningful to him because his late mother attended St. Paul’s.

“It’s very powerful to see everybody come together,” he said. His mother, who attended the school for about six years, “always did her best to move on from it and just live life to its best. But her stories would come up once in a while… because they were trying to take it away from her, language and culture, she stuck to it and held to it and continued it for generations.”

Other Indigenous people at the press conference described the investigation as a good first step and a recognition of the pain some of their parents or grandparents had experienced.

“I represent my father and mother, who went to residential schools,” said Rennie Nahanee, a Squamish man and Catholic deacon serving at nearby St. Paul’s Indian Catholic Church.

“They never received an apology ... For them and for my sister, who passed away before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out, I stand here.”

With government funding the Sisters of the Child Jesus ran St. Paul’s until 1959, when it was turned into a day school, then later closed and torn down. It is estimated more than 2,000 Indigenous children attended the school from Grades 1 through 8.

Chiefs Jen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Wayne Sparrow of the Musqueam Nation told the press they are grateful to be included in the collaborative effort and upcoming investigation.

“I thank the Squamish Nation, who have taken the lead and are doing this important work on behalf of our communities,” said Sparrow.

“We are going to work with each and every one of you to get to the truth and hopefully walking together. I want to acknowledge [Borkowski] for stepping forward on behalf of the Church. Our elders in our community were saying that the federal government has stepped forward and the provincial government and municipalities, but the only way we’re going to heal is doing it together.”

North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma and City of North Vancouver mayor Linda Buchanan were also present at the announcement to show support from local government.

St. Paul’s was the only residential school in the Metro Vancouver area and one of ten that existed in B.C. The others were in Cranbrook, Fraser Lake, Lower Post, Kamloops, Meares Island, Mission, Penalakut Island (previously Kuper Island), Sechelt, and Williams Lake. Investigations of sites in Cranbrook, Kamloops, and Penalakut are underway.

Khelsilem said the North Vancouver property poses unique challenges such as plenty of construction and development on the site in the last 70 years and its location at a busy Catholic private school, not on a reserve.

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