'I remember': B.C. residential school survivor speaks following discovery of possible burial sites

We're learning more about the extent of abuse at the site of the former Saint Joseph's Mission Residential School. An investigation by the Williams Lake First Nation, uncovering dozens of possible unmarked graves. And now, as Neetu Garcha reports, the community is reflecting on the trauma, experienced by survivors and their families, while looking toward the future. And a warning that this story might be triggering for some.

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

Survivors of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., are still reeling from the news that an initial sweep of the former grounds has uncovered 93 possible burial sites.

Jacqueline Sawan from the Tl’etinqox Government Band, otherwise known as Anaham Band, was the third generation in her family to attend the residential school.

Her dad was from the Alexandria Indian Band and her mom and siblings are from the Anaham band, she told Global News via written correspondence Tuesday.

“I am sincerely grateful that this story of how this residential school conducted their care of all of us children,” Sawan said. “I had blocked all this. But hearing it all again. I remember.”

“I seen priests with young girls,” she added. “Seen abuse. Plus I experienced the abuse.

“The food would have maggots in the food. (The) food was totally rotten. Milk was curdled.”

She said her brother was in the boy’s dormitory sick with a high fever and dehydration. It was Sawan’s sister who found out he was sick and snuck into the boy’s dormitory to take care of him.

Read more:

93 possible burial sites found in initial search at former B.C. residential school site

The 93 possible burial sites announced Tuesday are “reflections” or anomalies detected by ground-penetrating radar. Excavation is required to confirm whether they are human remains.

“Today I was extremely emotional,” Sawan said Tuesday. “I cried listening about this mission residential school. We lost our culture. We don’t know our native language or our native traditions. We were only taught to speak English at this residential school. We were punished if we tried to speak our language.”

She said she has struggled with alcoholism and depression growing up, along with many members of her family.

She graduated school and is now working as a chef. Her only daughter has a PhD in psychology and her sister was a social worker in the area for more than 30 years.

“My dad being raised in the mission residential school was an alcoholic but he worked in sawmills,” Sawan added.

“He used to sit and cry really hard.”

St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981 and has since been demolished. An additional property, the Onward Ranch, was added in 1964 to support the operational needs of the school. The sites were predominantly run by the Roman Catholic missionaries.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, one student died of exposure after trying to escape St. Joseph’s in 1902. Another died and eight others became ill after eating poisonous water hemlock, which parents believed was a response to discipline at the school.

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“When I was younger I felt ashamed for attending the residential school,” Sawan said. “I didn’t share this part of my life with anyone most of my life. I am 55 years old now. I am a third generation of this Williams Lake Mission Residential School.”

Tyman Jobin was also very emotional on Tuesday when the findings were announced.

Many family members on his wife’s side attended the school.

“For the kids to be recognized, the ones that are on that ground and never made it home,” he said.

He told Global News he feels the Ministry of Children and Family Development is still systematically discriminating against Indigenous children and families.

He alleged when an Indigenous family member tries to keep a child in their own care, ministry funding is delayed, compared to cases when a child is placed in the care of a non-Indigenous family.

“In this day and age, the way the ministry works and the way they apprehend children, to me, is nothing but residential (schools) still going on today,” Jobin said.

“Today’s kids that are being apprehended and are in the system, at least they are coming back.”

In a statement to Global News, the Ministry of Children and Family Development said it acknowledges that the “child welfare system has been overly involved in the lives of Indigenous children and families and that this dates back to residential schools and continues today.

“British Columbia is the first province to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — recognizing in law the human rights of Indigenous peoples.

“The Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) is working with Delegated Aboriginal Agencies, First Nations, Inuit and Métis partners to reduce the number of Indigenous children and youth coming into government care.”

The ministry said B.C. is seeing the lowest number of children and youth in care in 30 years and the lowest number of Indigenous children and youth in care since 2000.

When it comes to financial help, the ministry said it is striving to ensure “timely payment and issuance of supports.”

However, they know there are still some delays and urge anyone to make a complaint if needed.

For those affected by the news released on Tuesday and who have only started the long road to healing, they only hope there will be progress going forward.

“Most of my childhood memories just bring me sadness,” Sawan said. “I just remember the residential school. I did not have the opportunity to have a normal childhood, I was placed into a residential school to ensure the loss of my native heritage.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

— with files from Neetu Garcha and Elizabeth McSheffrey

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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