Work is currently underway to clean contaminated soil at the site of Lejac Residential School near Fraser Lake.
The project began a year-and-a-half ago when, as part of a claims negotiation with the federal government of Canada, Source Environmental Associates was retained as contaminated site experts to investigate if there was any contaminated soil on the site.
Lejac operated from 1922 to 1976 by the Catholic Church under contract with the Government of Canada. After the school was closed in 1976 the land was transferred to Nadleh Whut’en First Nation and the buildings were demolished.
Many of the thousands of children that were forced to attend the school were of Dakelh descent. However, children from other communities were brought to Lejac including Gitxsan, Wet'suwet'en and Sekani.
All that remains today are the cemetery and the Rose Prince Memorial.
“We started off about a year-and-a-half-ago doing environmental investigations, first of all, interviewing all the people from the school to find out what they could tell us about historical activities on the site, and where they may have been dumping contaminated material or waste and so on,” explained Gary Hamilton of Source Environmental Associates.
The company began test drilling work to investigate the soil and groundwater of the area and found that heating oil tanks which were used to heat the classrooms and main school building had contaminated the soil.
“The assessment project is almost over, and we are now moving into more of a remediation section where we actually take out the contaminated soil, and then dispose of it off-site in a landfill and put back clean soil,” added Martin Shin, also with Source Environmental Associates.
Hamilton said there’s an urgency to the project because they found a layer of heating oil sitting on top of the water table, and Nadleh Whut’en is about to install a new water supply well.
“We're concerned about another well pumping that might pull the contamination close to the well, and that's why we sort of got onto this right away to make sure that that's not an issue,” added Hamilton.
However, because of the sensitivity of working on the site of a former residential school, when they began testing the ground, they had a Nadleh Whuten monitor on-site to help identify any bones or anything that might be found in the ground.
“Now when it came to the actual cleanup part, we have a full-time archaeological technician on site just to observe the soil as we dig in to make sure if there's anything of archaeological significance that we identify it and stop work and so on,” said Hamilton, adding that they haven’t identified anything of significance in this area.
The project will take about two-to-three years to finish as there are four areas of contamination that need to be addressed including the pump station down by the water, the old school, and a landfill site, with work only being completed in the summer months.
“We're progressing through this season trying to get this and the pump house done and next season we'll do the school and then the landfill in the third season,” said Hamilton.
“Once we're done with this, it's to get the land back to current use and current environmental conditions.”
Nadleh Whuten will also take on a separate project of investigating the Lejac Residential School site with ground penetrating radar in a search for unmarked graves.
This follows the findings of unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School and other sites across Canada.
In a previous news release, the Nadleh Whut’en said it wants to search the school’s grounds, but it understands the work should be strategic, well planned and implemented with proper resourcing and support.
Ground penetrating radar would be a small part of the process, which it said should be done with careful consideration of criminal investigations, impacts to survivors, and the workloads of the nation’s staff and leadership.
“One of his projects for Lejac Residential School for the ground penetrating radar will begin probably next year,” said Nadleh Whut’en councillor Eleanor Nooski.
She said Nadleh Whut’en has hired a project lead who will be starting to work with the Nation in October.
“Well, the full project lead will be contacting all First Nations that went to Lejac Residential School and follow up with interviews to their Elders, and then we'll proceed from there.”
Nooski said she hopes Nadleh Whut’en will also be able to access archives from Rome to find out more about what happened at Lejac, but said this is the beginning of a long process.
A national 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support survivors and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis support referral services by calling 1-866-925-4419.