CONTENT WARNING: This story contains graphic details about residential “schools” that many will find distressing or triggering. Please look after your spirit and read with care.
After confirming the deaths of 158 Indigenous children at four government and church-run institutions in the “Fraser Valley,” researchers with Stó:lō Nation say they want to find the individuals who were responsible.
Following a two-year investigation, questions still remain about how many more children lost their lives while in forced custody — and about the adults responsible for their care — at the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, Coqualeetza Industrial Institute, All Hallows School or Coqualeetza Indian Hospital.
However, the team from Stó:lō says both Oblates of Mary Immaculate and “Canada” have blocked access to records which could help their efforts to identify what actions, or inactions, led to children’s deaths and who perpetrated the horrific abuses detailed by survivors.
“What we learned from speaking with only a handful of survivors is devastatingly traumatic and sad,” said David Schaepe, an archaeologist for Stó:lō who is leading the research project, on Thursday.
“Who perpetrated these atrocities? This is one of our core questions and remains a focus of our ongoing work.”
Research lead David Schaepe, left, and Chief David Jimmie (Lenéx wí:ót) present their findings in community on Sept. 21. Photo by Cara McKenna
Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh
On Thursday afternoon, Schaepe, along with another researcher and two Stó:lō chiefs, sat under a large tent beside the former St. Mary’s Residential School.
Located on the Stó:lō village site of Pekw’Xe:yles, where missionaries descended after the community was decimated by smallpox, the red brick building now looms over the lush greenery of the land.
The former institution, now utilized as a preschool, was the longest-running residential “school” in the province and only closed its doors in 1984 after 121 total years of operation, having moved twice during that time.
It still holds many dark memories for survivors and unknowns for families of those who didn’t make it home.
The Stó:lō Nation Chiefs’ Council (SNCC) launched the Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh (Taking Care of Our Children) project in 2021 to try to find answers about the children who went missing from St. Mary’s and three other institutions that operated within their unceded territories.
The announcement this week represented the results of the first phase of their investigation and was delivered to survivors, their families, media and other guests.
Chief David Jimmie (Lenéx wí:ót), president of the SNCC, began by acknowledging the strength, resilience and perseverance of the survivors in attendance before handing the floor to the researchers who detailed the various aspects of their work.
“Our sharing of this work is necessary to support the healing of our survivors and our families to overcome the multi-generational traumas resulting from the residential school experience,” Jimmie said.
“We’re also sharing our knowledge for the education of our communities and society at large, who need to understand what our survivors have understood for so long.”
Jimmie explained that the research project was launched by SNCC after hearing the news about evidence of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) and has involved various community partners.
The methodology of the work has included poring through thousands of records, utilizing ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and LiDAR scanning, genealogy research and recording oral histories from survivors.
“We know our children lost their lives, and these institutions were to blame,” Jimmie said.
“We are working to account for our people: who they are, where they died and where they were buried. But the foundation question is why did this happen, and that question we put back to the governments, the churches, and the non-Indigenous society at large to answer and to account for their actions.”
Cutouts of orange shirts are taped on the windows of the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, now utilized as a preschool. Photo by Cara McKenna
Researchers share horrific details
While ground scans have been part of the research thus far, only a small fraction of the grounds — between two and four per cent — have actually been searched, and so the team is not relying on this method but rather utilizing it as a contribution to a wider scope of work.
Jimmie said the team has worked on identifying any places where children may have been put to rest, including marked burial sites and investigating potential unmarked burial sites.
“We can also confirm having identified numerous potential unmarked burials including secretive burials, at least at the St. Mary’s old school grounds,” he said.
“It is too premature in our work, and distracting to our efforts, to focus on the numbers of potential unmarked burials.”
Amber Kostuchenko, the project manager for Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh, outlined the number of children’s deaths that she said have been confirmed as part of the project.
“We’ve received about half of the 70,000 relevant documents that we need to answer our questions,” she said.
“These records came from 27 different archives that were located in 47 different physical locations across Canada. Of those 35,000 documents we’ve only reviewed a small portion to date. Even so, we’ve already received detailed information about children who died.”
Kostuchenko said Stó:lō’s research has so far concluded a total of 158 children’s deaths, with the majority from illnesses. Children were known to have gotten sick with, and died from, tuberculosis and other diseases at high rates in residential “schools” because of poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, malnourishment and general neglect from the adults supervising them.
“We have carefully and rigorously analyzed the information we’ve gathered and we are confident in sharing numbers about the children who died while at these institutions,” Kostuchenko said.
At All Hallows School, she said, there were five deaths of girls who were reported to have died because of an illness. At the Coqualeetza residential “school,” the team has so far identified with certainty that 37 children died at, or because of their attendance — with 25 reported to have died from illness and three from injuries recorded as “accidents.” The remaining nine have unknown causes of death.
“One child died because they were jumped on by another student, another child was reported to have hit their head against the bed under unknown circumstances,” said Kostuchenko, who was visibly shaken and paused to take a sip of water. “Another was reported to have broken their spine while jumping rope.”
At St. Mary’s, the team confirmed 20 “students” who died, with the youngest child being seven years old and the oldest being 18. Most were reported to have died from illness, while the remaining three had unknown causes of death.
“Lastly, I want to talk about Coqualeetza Indian Hospital,” she said. “Through our work of historical documents, we’ve so far identified, with certainty, 96 children who died at the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital.”
Of that, 79 were reported to have died from tuberculosis while seven were reported to have passed from a different illness such as pneumonia or cardiac arrest during surgeries. The remaining 10 have unknown causes of death, she said.
Schaepe said survivors shared many atrocities of their experiences at the four institutions, and as he shared some of the testimony, people in the audience were visibly rattled, and some cried, including one woman who loudly sobbed upon hearing the upsetting details.
“We heard cases of children being killed, we heard of the secretive burial of children who died and the forced burial of children by other children,” Schaepe said.
“We learned of the secretive burial of babies. We were told that the St. Mary’s old school was characterized as a place of punishment and starvation, and the new school as a place of pedophilia.”
Children were exposed to disease, exploited for child labour and starved while they were institutionalized, and Schaepe’s voice shook as he spoke of children “having to choose between eating green, spoiled bologna or not eating at all.”
He then spoke of “rampant” sexual abuse that also took place at St. Mary’s — something that partially came to light in 2004 when former boys’ dormitory supervisor Gerald Moran was convicted of 12 counts of sexual abuse for offenses that took place about 40 years earlier.
“We heard of terrible implications that need further work to further understand,” Schaepe explained, “including a story of firemen responding to a fire at the old St. Mary’s girls’ dormitory and finding the remains of fetuses in the walls and, as is being told in experiences in other institutions, that furnaces were used for cremation purposes.”
A memorial house post by Terry Horne stands outside of the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. Photo by Cara McKenna
OMI claim to have no documents: researcher
Jimmie said the team wants to know more about the operations of the institutions and has been seeking out information but has been blocked from accessing certain records.
Some of the documents so far received — which are still being analyzed — have come from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Royal BC Museum, provincial archives, the United Church and the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a Catholic order of missionary priests, operated the St. Mary’s “school” and more than 50 others across the country.
“When we’ve had direct conversations with their chief administrative officer, they claim they no longer have any documents relevant to our work,” Jimmie said.
“They also have not been willing to facilitate direct conversations with the oblate fathers who may have direct knowledge of the operations of St. Mary’s.”
Jimmie said this lack of support from OMI has been contrary to public announcements about wanting to support survivors and their communities, and called on them to reach out to establish a direct relationship.
Shaepe said continually being redirected by OMI brings up questions about which documents and other information they do have in their custody.
“And why would they make a decision about documents that they would hold in their administrative archives and their administrative files that may be of interest to us?” he asked.
“But they’re not providing us access to even review. I think one of the things OMI needs to do is sit down with us and give us access to what records they actually have so we can determine for ourselves.”
A written statement from Ken Thorson from OMI Lacombe Canada to IndigiNews said the order was “deeply saddened” by the news from Stó:lō and expressed regret for the oblates’ role.
He said “any relevant records” from St. Mary’s “would be housed at the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Archives Deschâtelets in Richelieu.”
“We have an ongoing working relationship with both facilities and have provided them with funding to support their responses to requests from Indigenous researchers,” he said.
“It is my understanding that RBCM has been in contact with Stó:lō Nation directly to initiate the process of sharing digital records with them.”
Further, Thorson said, there is only one living oblate remaining who worked at St. Mary’s.
“We have not received any meeting requests on his behalf and he would not likely be capable of accepting such a request due to his advanced health situation,” he said.
However, Schaepe insisted that there must be knowledge that was transferred within the OMI order that is relevant to their work.
“There’s no living connection to the operation of the St. Mary’s grounds, whether it was the old grounds or the new grounds?” he asked.
“I think that’s another thing that they need to come forward and talk to us about. … At this point, they’ve not provided any connection to anybody, that history that knowledge basis should be, you know, a foundation for us gaining some additional information.”
A woman raises her hands to drummers who opened and closed the announcement on Sept. 21. Photo by Cara McKenna
Federal records also inaccessible
Meanwhile, Kostuchenko said she previously worked for the federal government doing residential “school” research, supporting settlement claims, but now cannot access these same archives.
“In my 14 years there I was one of hundreds of dedicated researchers who created a database that ultimately contained more than one million individual documents about these types of institutions all across Canada,” she said.
“These documents came from the Department of Indian Affairs files, from other federal departments, but also all of the religious organizations that were involved in running these institutions.”
Kostuchenko said this research involved noting “students” and staff members by name and recording information about child illnesses, deaths and sometimes abuse. She said having direct access to this archive would “vastly expedite” the team’s research, however they haven’t been able to.
IndigiNews reached out to the federal government for comment but did not receive a response before publication time.
Stó:lō Tribal Council Grand Chief Doug Kelly said the work is only the beginning, as researchers expect to continue the project for years to come. Photo by Cara McKenna
‘There was no accountability. None. There was no justice.’
Stó:lō Tribal Council Grand Chief Doug Kelly said the research, which is just at the very beginning, represents “a journey to confirming the truth that we carry in our DNA.”
“Our people are carrying incredible pain that was inflicted upon them by removal from their home, from their parents, their grandparents, their families, and being placed in residential schools,” he said.
“Where there was no oversight to keep those children safe. Where there was no oversight to ensure they were provided adequate food, warmth, shelter.”
He added that “there was no accountability. None. There was no justice.”
Cyril Pierre of Katzie First Nation, a survivor of St. Mary’s, said he feels that the preliminary results validate the experience he and others went through in residential “schools.”
“The hurt and pain the generations have faced is now coming to the surface, and this is a part of the truth that Canada must face,” he said in a statement.
“This is our truth. There is now justice for the Elders that have passed and the little baby ancestors that have been found. We are now able to properly give the babies that were found a send off in our sacred ways.
“This is just the beginning of our process; we are far from a full pledge to healing as so many have been hurt. But this is the first step. A step into strengthening our relationships and building a better world for our future generations.”
Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.
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In photos: Indigenous children and Youth take the spotlight at VIFW 2023
The future looked bright for the next generation at this year’s Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week (VIFW), as children and Youth showcased their talents in modelling and design.
The event took place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre over four nights last week — each with a different theme. VIFW is an annual event that began in 2017 as a way to promote and celebrate Indigenous fashion, arts and culture.
The third night on Nov. 22 had a theme of Indigenous Futures. After a territorial welcome, the lights dimmed and music vibrated the walls of the venue as Indigenous Youth from the Girls Who LEAP (Lead to Empower and Act with Purpose) program walked in their power on the runway.
As part of a mentorship program with VIFW, each girl designed and created their own shawl to showcase — embodying their hopes, dreams, and respective cultures. Their work was paired with the work of Nisg̱a’a designer Kevin Gosnell Designs.
Girls Who LEAP is a non-profit in “Vancouver” that provides leadership opportunities for Youth in the Downtown Eastside and Grandview Woodlands communities – both of which have a high population of urban Indigenous People. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Partnering with Indigenous models from Supernaturals Modelling, the Youth smiled, held back tears, and waved to their friends in the audience. Family members cheered for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
For Kailani, a Youth who participated in the LEAP program, being mentored to create a shawl for VIFW was a dream come true, and a way to honour her family and culture.
Kailani says she wanted to honour her name, which means sea and sky in Hawaiian, as the inspiration for her design. “I created a blue sun with red, yellow, orange and purple arrows mimicking the course of the sunset. The blue sun represents the meeting point of the sea and the sky,” says Kailani. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“I grew up seeing my aunt dance in her beautiful regalia,” said Kailani.
“My aunt Rebecca influences me especially because many designs are based around powwow culture.”
Kailani’s aunt is Kwakiutł, Dzawada’enuxw and Skwxwú7mesh designer Rebecca Baker-Grenier, who also showcased her clothing designs during VIFW. Another aunt of Kailani’s, Himalkas Pam Baker, also showcased her fashions.
Girls Who LEAP models show off their shawls on the runway. Photo by Aaron Hemens
The founder and artistic director of VIFW, Joleen Mitton, was in the audience, dancing and cheering for the Youth and their creations.
Her work in creating VIFW was recently featured in the short film Ancestral Threads, which premiered at HotDocs in 2023.
The behind the scenes look at how VIFW began, and all of the work that goes into curating a show, and the people Mitton has brought along with her.
The former international model, who is Cree, has deep roots in “Vancouver” mentoring Indigenous Youth. For Mitton, she credits her kokum for inspiring her to serve the community.
Joleen Mitton (front), the founder of VIFW, poses on the runway during the Girls Who LEAP finale. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Opening the show, Mitton wore a jumpsuit with the slogan “the future is Indigenous” on the back before changing looks later in the night.
“You’ve got to appreciate the outfit,” she said. “This was made by the Youth. They are our future.”
Angela Howe-Parrish of Choke Cherry Creek, who is Apsaalooke (Crow) and Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet), shared her new Apsáalooke Collection, which featured vibrant colours, geometric patterns and Elk tooth prints. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Owen Unruh, a Two-Spirit Cree model, dancer and content creator, in Choke Cherry Creek Designs. Photo by Aaron Hemens
During a showcase for the Heiltsuk-owned streetwear brand HSTRYMKRS, models wearing jerseys, cargos and statement-making jewelry by Copper Canoe Woman danced to hip hop music and hyped up the crowd as they walked the runway, prompting loud cheers.
Fashion Brand HSTRYMKRS shared spray paint designs that read “Young Matriarch” and “The Youth are the Future.” Photo by Aaron Hemens
The cheers became louder as a model wearing a graffiti-painted gown emblazoned with the words “The Youth are Sacred” and “The Youth are the Future” walked out with three children who wore shirts with the slogans “Youth Matriarch.”
A model with HSTRYMKRS poses on the runway in front of cheerful audience members. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“How many more times am I going to cry tonight?” said the event’s host Kiefer Collison, after the showcase was over. “That was absolutely beautiful.”
A spectator raises their fist in the air in solidarity with HSTRYMKRS models. Photo by Aaron Hemens
The themes for the other nights of VIFW were the opening Red Dress Event, All My Relations and Spirit of the West Coast.
“My people, you are so beautiful and so strong,” said Rueben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who gave a territorial welcome with his children Cedar and Kayah.
“This is a celebration, because how we look is to the future.”
The show was opened by Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN) and his children Cedar and Kayah. “We’re taking it back,” says George. “This is a presentation of our future, of who we are.” Photo by Aaron Hemens
With files from Aaron Hemens and Cara McKenna
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
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