Tseshaht First Nation begins scanning for unmarked residential school graves in Port Alberni

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      Vancouver Island's Tseshaht First Nation has announced that it has commenced scanning for unmarked graves at the site of the former Alberni Indian Residential School.

      The school, which opened in 1900 and closed in 1973, was run by both the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church.

      It was rebuilt three times after fires: in 1917, 1937, and 1941.

      In the July 11 announcement, Tseshaht elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) said the project is being carried out in concert with GeoScan, a Vancouver-based surveying company specializing in ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

      The bulletin noted that GeoScan has performed scanning work at other residential-school sites and would be conducting its operations "with cultural protocols in mind".

      In a February 9, 2022, release, Wahmeesh said that "foundational work" would be underway during the next few months, incluring drones with LiDAR technology, to set the stage for more extensive GPR scanning in late spring or summer.

      (LiDAR ("light detection and ranging") is an aerial form of a remote-sensing technology that uses a laser to make digital 3-D maps of the ground and measure distances.

      For more than a century, between 1883 and 1996, over 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend 139 government-funded and church-run residential schools in Canada. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report noted that at least 4,200 Indigenous children had died in those schools, with more than half those deaths not receiving an official cause and with no names attached to a third of the deaths.

      The report also determined that students were commonly abused, both sexually and physically, and were poorly fed and suffered from various serious diseases, including tuberculosis.

      The Tseshaht First Nation has more than 1,200 registered members and is one of 14 nations in the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. Its traditional territories extend from the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island's west coast, up the Alberni Inlet, the Alberni Valley, and parts of the central Island's interior.

      "As a caretaker nation (a community that had a residential school in their traditional territory)...Tseshaht First Nation has taken on the obligation of leading this project, which impacts over 100 First Nations communities in B.C.," Wahmeesh said in the release.

      The work will take about two weeks to complete, Wahmeesh said, with additional time as required for analysis and processing of scanning data. "Once this work is completed, a formal announcement with summary report will be shared."

      Security at the scanning sites will be tight, the notice said, with no media allowed and no photography or filming of any kind allowed. A Transport Canada no-fly zone for aircraft and drones during the project will also be implemented.

      "Today we show up for Survivors and for those who did not make it home," Wahmeesh said in the release. "Each one of us is impacted and may feel many emotions as this work is done throughout our territories. Our ancestors have guided us to this point and are with us today as we reflect on the sacred work that has begun."