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Stólō Tribal Council embarking on interview project for survivors of St. Mary’s Residential School

‘It’s a humongous task, but it needs to be done,’ said Stólō Grand Chief Clarence Pennier

Editor’s note: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to readers.

The Stólō Tribal Council is undertaking a mammoth project to interview survivors of St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission.

“It’s a humongous task, but it needs to be done,” said Grand Chief Clarence Pennier, co-ordinator of the interview project for the tribal council.

Stólō Tribal Council is undertaking the task of recording survivor accounts from St. Mary’s in a methodical way. The children who were forced to attend the Fraser Valley residential school may have been originally from Nu-chah-nulth territory, Lil’wat territory, N’lakapamux territory or Coast Salish territory, with a few from the Central Coast.

For those who are willing to be interviewed, the tribal council is now hiring a team of interviewers to conduct the sessions with the utmost sensitivity and respect, Pennier said.

Following the grisly discovery of 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops last year, it set off a chain reaction of discovery as funding was sought from governments for other similar searches, and research, at former residential schools across Canada.

Soon after the provincial and federal government coffers started opening up to Indigenous groups to search for potential unmarked graves at every institution, Stólō Tribal Council applied to record survivors’ stories and experiences, and was successful in obtaining funding of $1.2 million over the next three years to complete the work.

Some survivors may not want to tell their stories, Pennier said.

Others may have already shared their experiences with other agencies, or researchers, as Pennier did himself under the “independent assessment process” that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“It’s their choice,” the grand chief underlined. The stories may inform future ground searches.

“At some point, the grounds of St. Mary’s will also be searched by equipment that will identify different things in the ground that could be unmarked graves.”

They expect interviewers may hear stories of every kind of abuse whether mental, physical, sexual or spiritual. They might hear stories about family members who never came home, from the survivors, their children, and grandchildren.

“We must listen to the stories and learn about their experiences,” Pennier said. “We must support them in their journey as they move on from telling their story. Healing is required for our families and communities.”

Having attended two residential schools over 11 years, including St. Mary’s and one year in Kamloops, Pennier went through a couple of years of counselling to be able to share out loud what he went through.

“I can now tell my story. And that’s where a lot of survivors might need to hear this, if they have been abused sexually, many somehow think it was their fault. But I went for counselling, and it helped me. Maybe it will help others to go that route as well.”

They plan to have counsellors available for anyone who agrees to be interviewed.

The survivors’ stories need to be heard, for the benefit of the younger generation and seven generations into the future, to learn about residential schools and the impacts that are still being felt inter-generationally, he said.

It’s also going to help non-Indigenous people to comprehend the negative effects of colonization, the price of living under the Indian Act, and what impact it had when government decided to remove children from their families and communities with the aim of “taking the Indian out of the child.”

In addition to the interviewing process that’s about to start under the guidance of Stólō Tribal Council, Stólō Nation will be undertaking the ground searches at St. Mary’s and Coqualeetza, as well as the research of all historical files related to the Coqualeetza site in Chilliwack, All Hallows in Yale, and St. Mary’s in Mission.

Stólō Nation will also be interviewing Coqualeetza survivors.

Any survivors of St. Mary’s who are ready to schedule a time to be interviewed, or to get more details, can call Grand Chief Pennier at 604-798-2795, or email, or email

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Jennifer Feinberg

About the Author: Jennifer Feinberg

I have been a Chilliwack Progress reporter for 20+ years, covering the arts, city hall, as well as Indigenous, and climate change stories.
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