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Lejac, back from the grave

Residential school debris resurfaces, putting Indigenous industry at risk.
An excavator on the shores of Fraser Lake picks away at the unwelcome discovery of the Lejac Residential School foundations hidden beneath the topsoil. The federal government was supposed to have removed it in the 1990s. (Frank Peebles)

The Lejac Residential School is haunting the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation (NWFN) one more time, decades after it was torn down on their traditional territory.

The school on the southeast shore of Fraser Lake was a house of horrors for generations of Indigenous students forced to attend there, as their families enduring the loss of their children’s presence at home. The physical, emotional and sexual abuse unveiled during the Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings, as well as prior RCMP investigations, often had the name Lejac attached to the victims’ testimony.

It was a school infamous for combinations of death, assault, and cultural molestation from its opening in 1922 until its closure in 1976.

The federal government told the Nadleh Whut’en people that it had been dismantled in the 1990s, when the then-called Department of Indian Affairs razed the abandoned school and its handful of outbuildings. But this past summer it came back out of its grave, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the enterprising NWFN.

“We had an economic development project with Coastal GasLink,” said Chief Larry Nooski.

The NWFN had a deal with the liquefied natural gas transmission company to build a sprawling work camp for crews set to install the new LNG pipeline through the area. When excavators were doing the site preparation work, they discovered the entire cement basements of the Lejac Residential School and its ancillary buildings still intact, buried just below the surface of the grounds, plus a substantial amount of build materials left over from the 1990s demolition.

The possibility of asbestos and lead-based paint suddenly sprang into the site preparation exercise that had been progressing without a hitch to that point.“I can tell you this, it just goes on and on,” said one of the excavator operators. “There is so much stuff coming up, and they built foundations thick, back then, so it is heavy and beefy.”

The federal government acknowledged that the buried material was not supposed to be there.

“For reasons that are currently unknown to Indigenous Services Canada, material that should have been removed for off-site disposal in the late 1990s or early 2000s as part of the demolition of Lejac Residential School was instead buried in-place,” said a statement issued by ISC. “The Department has been working with the First Nation to deal with building materials in a manner consistent with the proposed land use at the site.”

Nooski said the discovery of the incomplete demolition was more than a mere inconvenience, but comes at massive cost. With hazardous materials assessments and the removal of thousands of square feet of concrete and other debris, the price tag was suddenly about double the original work order.

“This project with Coastal GasLink is now threatened due to the failure of the federal government to remove all evidence of the Lejac Residential School from our reserve,” the Chief said.

“We also have deals pending for other economic activity at this site and these delays are now on the radar of those interested parties. We have to remove all this or it will get in the way of all our plans for economic self-determination.”

The primary problem, said Nooski, is the prescriptive relationship that still exists between Ottawa and the First Nations of Canada. In a system he likened to the now disbanded Apartheid policies of South Africa, the federal government still asserts ownership and control of Indigenous community lands. In this case, the old foundations of Lejac Residential School sit on a parcel of land officially known as Seaspunkut IR4.

Arrangements had been made between Ottawa and the NWFN to undertake the work needed to set up the Coastal GasLink camp, but to suddenly add in the work to dismantle the newly discovered materials of Lejac Residential School went outside the scope of that agreement.

The initial response from ISC’s engineer assigned to the project was “The funding approved by ISC is for the removal of the former school foundation. At this time there is no additional funding available.”

The engineer also cautioned the NWFN that proceeding with the removal of the foundations and debris on their own “it should be stockpiled on site,” and would have to come out of the pockets of the First Nation with the warning “there may or may not be available funds in future years for this work.”

Waiting for new work orders and the necessary funding would in all likelihood cause the death of the deal with the pipeline company, Nooski said. It left the NWFN with little option.

“The response from Indigenous Services Canada was outrageous,” said Nooski.

“I think our best course of action is to take on the responsibility for taking it away, and seek restitution from Ottawa later. It is not an ideal situation, to say the least. Dealing with any Indigenous offices of the federal government, you never know when you’re going to get a response or anything in funding.”

Nooski said the estimated cost of removing the Lejac school remnants was in the range of $400,000 above the original work order. The NWFN was in a financial position to take on the full cost, as long as they got that money paid back.

“We have to just get rid of it, deal with it later on, so we can show industry that we are taking the necessary steps to be open for business,” said Nooski.

That is also the reason a Nadleh Whut’en elder was clothed in safety gear and standing on the edge of the dig.

Along with the confirmed crimes and cultural abuses that occurred within the walls of Lejac, there are also the rumours: rumours of bodies buried secretly or negligently as a macabre side-effect of the residential school system. Stories have wafted into the present day of long-ago student fatalities, and babies who didn't survive their birth to students fathered illicitly by the school staff.

“We have heard these stories, but how do you confirm them now, after all these years?,” Nooski said.

“It was all unconfirmed, but during the planning of the excavation work we insisted that an elder be present with the power to stop all digging if anything unusual comes to attention. We really don’t know what’s down there. Entire massive basements were down there, it turns out, so that part was certainly a shock, and we have to be vigilant for the unexpected of any kind, but nothing else unusual has come to light so far.”

The latest statement on the matter from ISC was that the situation was being examined in a spirit of cooperation with the NWFN, but no definitive funding was yet confirmed, just the promise that “The Department is currently assessing the scope of this additional work and determining timelines relating to this work. The Department will continue to work with the leadership of Nadleh Whut’en to address this matter.”

Nooski said the Lejac situation brings the entire Canadian government’s post-residential school behavior into question. If the federal government’s answer to their school removal duties at Lejac was to simply skim the surface and bury the rest, hoping nobody ever noticed, was the same thing done at other sites across Canada? Or was Lejac the only one?

Either way, said Nooski, it causes him fundamental questions as a taxpayer, not just the chief of a single First Nation – one having its economic prospects buried by Ottawa bureaucracy just like they buried tons of construction materials and traumatic memories that were bound to one day resurface.

Frank Peebles is a veteran magazine and newspaper journalist based in Prince George. He has won numerous awards for his work, including Canadian Community Newspaper Association and BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association citations.