Grant Alphonse of Tl’etinqox First Nation was hoping he’d find a photograph of his grandfather in a St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School historic photo exhibit on display in Williams Lake.
The exhibit - Remembering our Friends - opened in the Gibraltar Room at the Cariboo Memorial Recreation Complex on Monday, Sept. 25.
“My grandfather Charlie Alphonse was one of the first people from our community to attend the mission in the early 1900s,” Alphonse said, adding he himself went to school there from 1979 to 1981.
His late mother attended the school and was pro-Catholic while his late father never attended residential school and was a sovereign Tsilhqot’in, he said.
“I was glad to be raised with the two perspectives. You really could tell the difference.”
Augy Lulua of Xeni Gwet’in First Nation went to the mission in 1957 and 1958.
“I was already 12 when I got there,” he said.
Alphonse and Lulua were looking at the photographs displayed around the room and had helped identify some people.
“It’s good to have history that was forgotten and never really displayed open to the public like this to make sure this never happens again,” Alphonse said.
Across the room Martha Sure from Esk’etemc (Alkali Lake) was looking at a photograph of children in uniforms in a large group and commented that no one was smiling.
She wasn’t in that particular photograph, but said she was at the mission for eight years and left in 1949.
By lunch time, around 20 people were seated in chairs to watch a screening of the 1993 documentary Beyond the Shadows - The legacy of the Indian Residential Schools in Canada.
There will be a different film screened at lunch time Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as well as Wednesday evening.
St. Joseph’s Mission operated as a residential school between 1886 and 1981. Thousands of children attended the school.
In 2021, Williams Lake First Nation started an investigation into the disappeared and deceased Indigenous children at St. Joseph’s Mission.
Lead investigator Whitney Spearing was sitting at the front entrance of the exhibit as people entered Monday morning.
She said as soon as the investigation started, the team began reaching out to collect related photographs and documents.
First they went to the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin in Williams Lake, followed by the Royal BC Museum (RBCM), BC Archives and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
“We’ve been to the BC Archives three times,” she said.
At the NCTR they were able to view its collection from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Later Spearing and Dominique Melanson, administrative coordinator, visited the Oblates repository - Deschâtelets-NDC Archives - in Montreal last October to view the originals.
“We went to see with our own eyes what they had and predominantly everything is at the NCTR, except for staff records which they are still working on,” Spearing said.
Additionally, people brought in their own photographs to the SJM team, some the NCTR and RBCM did not have.
The team also found information in the Williams Lake Tribune archives, the historic 150 Mile House School House and at the Williams Lake library archives where there is small collection.
Spearing said the exhibit will give the public another opportunity to bring in any photographs.
“We are set up to scan and intake and we are set up, if people come in and see a photograph of themselves, to make them a copy.”
Another valuable aspect are any memories people might have when they look at the display.
There are post-it notes around the room for people to make notes.
“There are lots of class photographs that we don’t have the names for because they were not written on the back,” she said.
Eventually the SJM investigation team will set up its own archive directly related to St. Joseph’s Mission, Spearing said.
The exhibit is open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25 through Friday, Sept. 29.
Films are being screened every day at noon and on Wednesday, evening, 7 to 9 p.m.
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