Former students of St. Paul’s Indian Residential School cheer each other on, saying “we’re allowed to smile now,” as they pose for a photo at a news conference to announce an investigation into the school. Photo by Agnieszka Ruck

First Nations, Catholics unite to seek truth

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • August 26, 2021

VANCOUVER -- The personal accounts of residential school survivors will be a key part of an investigation into the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential School.

The hope is to bring to light truths about the residential school, which operated from 1899 until 1959 roughly where St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School’s parking lot sits in North Vancouver. First Nations and Catholics will be working together at the residential school site.

Squamish Nation spokesperson Khelsilem (also called Dustin Rivers) said 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, similar to what has led to the discovery of unmarked graves at other residential school sites across Canada.

“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.”

A 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.

“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,” said Khelsilem.

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.

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

Kevin Rivers, father of Khelsilem, 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.”

Others 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.”

It is estimated more than 2,000 Indigenous children attended the school from Grades 1 through 8.

St. Paul’s was the only residential school in the Metro Vancouver area and one of 10 that existed in B.C.

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