The structures from a horrific chapter in Port Alberni’s not-so-distant past still stand.
“We couldn’t have fun as a kid, you know. We were abused, assaulted by the supervisors here,” said Wally Samuel, a survivor of the Port Alberni Residential School, one of five residential schools that were open on Vancouver Island.
Wally and his wife Donna both attended the Port Alberni Residential School in the 1980s, and still feel a sense of unease walking the grounds.
“We got strapped a few times, that’s where a lot of us learned that violence — being treated violently,” said Wally.
“It was very hard but we normalized it, then that carried through to our children,” said Donna, stifling back tears.
“And to this day I’m very very sorry to doing that to them.”
For more than a century, hundreds of Indigenous children across Canada were forcibly removed from their homes, and stripped of their culture and identity.
And here at the Port Alberni Residential School, some kids were physically and sexually abused — their bodies even experimented on.
“They actually tested certain supplements on students. They were used as guinea pigs is what we’ve been told,” said Chief Councillor Ken Watts of the Tseshaht First Nation.
It’s a traumatic legacy that has been passed down, one that’s visible today.
“The health and social issues we face in our community — you can see them. You can feel them,” said Chief Watts.
And with the news of other atrocities, that 215 children had been found in a mass unmarked grave at a Kamloops residential school this week, many want more than memorials.
“I think that we need to see the federal government and churches stepping up to the plate,” said Judith Sayers, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president.
The Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were the major denominations involved in the administration of the residential school system.
The Catholic Church is the only one, still to this day, that hasn’t made a formal apology.
“I just think it’s abhorrent, it’s horrific, for people who say they believe in God and all the teachings in that would be in the bible. I think people should be pounding on their churches’ doors, pounding on the Pope’s doors saying ‘what are they going to do about this?'” said Sayers.
“Some people think the Pope is untouchable. He’s just a person, that has a role, and he’s not taking his role seriously.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to ask Pope Francis in 2017 to apologize for the Catholic church’s role in Canada’s residential schools, but he refused.
And for many Indigenous leaders, that’s not enough.
“How do we hold the church to account? Do we have to sue them?” asked Sayers.
“I think it’s something we have to get organized as First Nations people to do.”
Because after the collective grief this week, now many want true accountability.
With files from CBC.
Support services are available for anyone impacted by the news.
A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
The B.C. KUU-US Crisis Line Society also has 24-hour services available toll-free at 1-800-588-8717 or online here. A youth line is also available at 250-723-2040, and an adult line is available at 250-723-4050.