Three Vancouver Island First Nations announce searches for unmarked graves on former residential school sites

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      Warning: this article contains information that could be triggering for some readers.

      The 'Namgis First Nation announced today (February 17) that it had begun a lengthy investigation into the gtounds of a former residential school that will involve searching for unmarked graves.

      The First Nations community on Cormorant Island, off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island, said in a release that the project would be completed "in phases".

      It will begin with extensive archival and oral-history research, continue with community and school-survivor engagement, and end with the use of ground-penetrating radar to seek possible resting sites of human remains.

      "At the moment, some details have to be worked out," 'Namgis communications manager Mustafa Eric told the Straight by phone from Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, referencing the hiring of a project manager and engaging contractors to examine the school grounds for potential burial sites.

      "It would be fair to say that the timeline is not worked out at the moment," Eric added, noting that "more details will be forthcoming" when a special steering committee provides more information.

      The steering committee will also "provide access to culturally safe and trauma informed mental health supports for survivors and their descendants, plus all community members", the release said.

      According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website, the St. Michael's Indian Residential School started as an Anglican-mission day school in 1878, became a boarding school in 1882, then an industrial school in 1894. The brick edifice that forcibly housed 200 students from 45 coastal First Nations communities until 1974 was built in 1929.

      Boys in assembly at Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960.

      St. Michael's was demolished by members of the 'Namgis First Nation in 2015, after a public "decommissioning" ceremony.

      Also today, Chief Thomas George of Vancouver Island's Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, in a joint bulletin with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, announced funding to continue that community's search for unmarked graves at two sites associated with the Christie residential school near Tofino.

      The Roman Catholic-run Christie residential school on Meares Island opened in 1900, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The centre describes the facility as having been often overcrowded and notes that six students died there of tubercular meningitis between 1939 and 1941.

      The centre also notes a years-long case of sexual abuse there in the 1950s, committed by a school maintenance worker.

      The Meares Island school closed in 1971, and its students were transferred to Christie Student Residence in nearby Tofino, which itself closed in 1983.

      The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, which has approximately 1,200 members, has been conducting research and using ground-penetrating radar to locate possible unmarked-grave locations at the sites, and Chief George said in the February 17 release that the funding of $543,180 over three years is an "important first step" in the First Nation's healing process.

      "This funding support is an important first step in helping our nation identify the atrocities and harm done to our children and facilitate the healing of our members who endured the pain and suffering in Canadian Residential Schools," George said.

      Miller said Ottawa is "committed" to support the First Nation. "Our hearts are with Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation as they undertake this painful but important work to locate and memorialize missing children from Christie Residential School sites. We acknowledge Canada's failure in protecting the rights of Indigenous children—taken away from their families and cultures—and we remain committed to supporting your work as you uncover the truth and work toward healing."

      Christie residential school, Meares Island, B.C.

      The release noted that the federal government, pursuant to Calls to Action 72 through 76 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has already committed $116.8 million to aiding Indigenous communities in their search for and commemoration of missing residential-scvhool children. 

      In August 2021, Ottawa announced that another $320 million had been made available to Indigenous-led initiatives "to help Indigenous communities respond to—and heal from—the ongoing impacts of Residential Schools".

      In 2015, the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said that about 4,100 indigenous children had died In church-run and government-funded residential schools, and that there was no cause of death given in about half the incidents. The TRC said then that no names had been recorded for one-third of those deaths.

      In a later interview, Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. said he had documentaion of the deaths of more than 6,000 Indigenous children as a result of their residential-school experiences, and that the actual number was likely far higher.

      The TRC was established as part of Canada's historic 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and it started its contrywide consulktation and research process in 2009.

      The Alberni Indian Residential School in 1920.

      Between 1883 and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend 139 residential schools in Canada. TRC testimony established that many of them were physically and sexually abused, were poorly fed, and suffered from diseases such as tuberculosis. Students were kept in some schools for years, not allowed to visit families on holidays in some cases, and were beaten for speaking their own languages.

      The Roman Catholic Church operated about 60 percent of the schools, and the TRC estimated that about 80,000 residential-school survivors are still living today.

      The commission said the odds of a child dying in a residential school were about one in 25; the odds of death for Canadian soldiers in the Second World War were one in 26.

      In 2019, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation announced that it was releasing the names of approximately 3,000 children who, it had determined, had died in Canadian residential schools.

      Meanwhile, the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni posted a statement on February 9 that said it had started "foundational work" to begin searching for potential unmarked grave sites near the former Alberni Indian Residential School.

      The United Church of Canada and Presbyterian Church-run school opened in 1900 and shut down in 1973. It had been rebuilt three times following fires in 1917, 1937, and 1941.

      In the statement, the First Nation said a project team "has begun gathering the knowledge needed to prepare the community and site for ground-penetrating radar scanning". It also said that scanning operations will have to wait "until soil conditions are ideal".

      Tseshaht elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) said in the update that during the next few months "our members and the public can potentially expect to see more people at the site and drones doing LiDAR scanning". LiDAR, an acronym for "light detection and ranging", is an aerial remote-sensing technology that uses a laser to measure distances to the ground. It can also be used to make digital 3D maps of surface areas.

      Kuper Island Residential School in the 1920s.
      B.C. Archives

      "We hope to undertake the first phase scanning of ground penetrating radar in spring or summer of this year," Wahmeesh said.

      On January 25, B.C.'s Williams Lake First Nation released preliminary findings from research at the sites of the St. Joseph's Mission residential school and a nearby ranch that showed 93 "reflections" from ground-penetrating radar and LiDAR scans that could indicate human remains.

      The Catholic-run St. Joseph's operated as a residential school for more than a century, from 1886 to 1991.

      In July 2021, the Penelakut First Nation—which is based on Penelakut Island (formerly Kuper Island) in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands, near Chemainus on Vancouver Island—said in a statement from Chief Joan Brown that it had discovered more than 160 unmarked and undocumented graves in the vicinity of the Kuper Island Residential School.

      According to the website of UBC's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, the Catholic-run Kuper Island school opened in 1890 and closed in 1975. A survey conducted in 1916 found that 107 of 264 former students had died.

      The school was demolished in the 1980s.

      The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, on May 27, 2021, said it had used ground-penetrating radar to find the buried remains of an estimated 215 children on and around the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, near Kamloops, B.C. 

      The Catholic-run institution operated from 1890 to 1978, with 500 students there at its peak.

      A month later, on June 30, a statement from the ʔaq̓am Community, a member band of the Ktunaxa Nation near Cranbrook, B.C., in the southern Interior, clarified details released earlier that day by the nearby Lower Kootenay First Nation about the discovery of 182 unmarked graves.

      The ʔaq̓am bulletin said that community members had found human remains the previous year, in 2020, while doing remedial work around the ʔaq̓am Cemetery near the former St. Eugene Residential School (now the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino).

      St. Eugene's residential school, post-1912.

      Following the discovery, ʔaq̓am leaders decided to investigate using ground-penetrating radar, which was when the unmarked graves were found, according to the release.

      "ʔaq̓am leadership would like to stress that although these findings are tragic, they are still undergoing analysis and the history of this area is a complex one," the bulletin noted.

      The Catholic-run St. Eugene's operated as the St. Eugene and St. Mary's mission schools from 1890 to 1912, when they were replaced with an industrial school sometimes also called the Kootenay Indian Residential School.

      According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the school saw 5,000 students from about 30 Okanagan Indigenous communities pass through its doors before closing in 1970.