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Prime minister, chiefs to visit St. Joseph’s Mission former residential school near Williams Lake

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars said he welcomes the PM’s visit
Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation speaks during a ceremony held Monday, Aug. 30, 2021 as the investigation of the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School got underway. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

A visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller set for Wednesday, March 30 to Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) will include a ceremony at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.

WLFN Chief Willie Sellars told the Tribune the visit came about following a phone call from the PM after WLFN announced on Jan. 25, 2022, its preliminary findings of 93 reflections from its investigation at the St. Joseph’s Mission site.

“I told him it was great to have him reach out and it would be great to see him come to Williams Lake to walk the grounds of St. Joseph’s Mission, meet our council, the survivors and our elders and give us an opportunity to show him some of the things we are doing here.”

Sellars said delegates such as National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson, Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty, Cariboo Regional District chair Margo Wagner and multiple chiefs will attend the ceremony. A representative from the neighbouring city of Williams Lake was not invited, Sellars confirmed.

Notably absent from the visit with Trudeau will be the six chiefs representing the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, who confirmed in a news release Tuesday they will not be attending or participating and were instead calling on the Prime Minister, Minister Miller, and WLFN leadership to commit to establishing a planning committee for the St. Joseph’s site investigation that includes Tŝilhqot’in chiefs, along with leadership from all First Nations who had children attend the school.

“Williams Lake First Nation should be the lead because it is in their territory, but the process should be governed by all First Nations that were affected,” Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government, told the Tribune.

“St. Joseph’s Mission was the main residential school for the six Tŝilhqot’in communities, as well as Nuxalk, Southern Dakelh, Northern Secwepemc, and others. Generations of Tŝilhqot’in children were taken to St. Joseph’s Mission and every Tŝilhqot’in community and family is impacted by this legacy of trauma. Tŝilhqot’in survivors carry stories of the atrocities committed at that site and the children that did not return to their families,” stated the news release.

Tŝilhqot’in chiefs are also wanting the government to recognize the special significance of the St. Joseph’s Mission grounds and take steps to secure the lands on behalf of all nations as a sacred historical site.

Throughout the investigation, customs and protocols need to be honoured and respected, Alphonse added.

“Every First Nation out there has different customs and practices.”

Chief Sellars said it was ‘unfortunate’ the Tŝilhqot’in chiefs’ concerns were shared in a news release, adding his team has repeatedly asked them to be involved.

“We had an all-chiefs meeting last week and I said it would have been good to have some TNG representation because we are going through our work plan and the next steps in community engagement and nation-to-nation inclusion on how we approach the potential excavation piece in the St. Joseph’s Mission investigation and how we include our ceremonies and protocols, etc.” Sellars said.

As the investigation moves forward, Sellars said multiple First Nations are going to need to be engaged in discussions.

“We will continue to try and reach out and hopefully they [Tŝilhqot’in chiefs] will sit down with us so we can have dialogue.”

St. Joseph’s Mission was established in 1867 by Roman Catholic Oblate missionaries in an area just south of the current WLFN community of Sugar Cane.

In 1886, St. Joseph’s became an Indian Residential School and remained one until it was closed in 1981.

So far the investigation has focused on the Mission around the school building, barn and corrals as well as a portion of the nearby Onward Ranch and railroad right-of-way in the San Jose Valley.

During Wednesday’s visit the Prime Minister is expected to take part in a press conference at some point during his scheduled four-hour stop.

READ MORE: Ceremony held as investigation of St. Joseph’s Residential School grounds gets underway

READ MORE: ‘93 is our number’: WLFN reveals St. Joseph’s Mission preliminary findings

Support is available to anyone affected by the ongoing effects of Residential Schools. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24-hours a day, 7-days a week at 1-866-925-4419.

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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