Residential school survivors react to existence of unmarked graves on Penelakut Island

Residential school survivors react to existence of unmarked graves on Penelakut Island
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Kuper Island Residential School on Penelakut Island is shown in this archive photo.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.

Residential school survivors are grieving once again after a Vancouver Island First Nation confirmed the existence of 160 unmarked graves on its lands.

Penelakut Tribes shared the information in an internal newsletter sent to neighbouring tribes late last week.

“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighbouring communities attended the Kuper Island Residential School. We also recognize with a tremendous amount of grief and loss, that too many did not return home,” reads a statement from Penelakut Tribe Chief Joan Brown.

Located on Penelakut Island across the water from Chemainus, Kuper Island Industrial Residential School opened in 1889 and was known as “Canada’s Alcatraz” due to its location on an island, but largely because it was rife with unimaginable abuse.

“I got so choked up I almost cried, you know, just from the sadness,” said Kuper Island survivor Ray Tony Charlie.

A team of UBC archeologists has been working with Penelakut Tribes for the past seven years using ground-penetrating radar to try to find the school’s missing children. It’s a search that has proven challenging.

“The school grounds are right on top of the centre of the current Penelakut community so we’re not talking about an open field,” said archeologist Eric Simons.

He says teams haven’t been finding remains, but grave shafts, and that their work on the island is nowhere near done.

With more than 1,000 other unmarked graves discovered at or near residential school sites across Canada — including 751 at the former Marieval Indian Residential School near Regina and 215 at the Kamloops Indian Residential School — many are once again calling for action.

“This is Canadian history and it’s gross and it’s ugly,” said Steve Sxwithul’txw, a Kuper Island survivor. “This is something we don’t want to talk about, we want to move on with our lives too, but unfortunately the truth has to come out.”

Sxwithul’txw said he wants to find and expose those responsible, both from churches and the federal government.

On Tuesday, Bishop Gary Gordon of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria issued a statement in response to the unmarked graves, saying in part that the Diocese “grieves for the victims and apologizes for its role in the operation of residential schools.”

“Our hears go out in sadness for the little ones torn from their families and never returned home,” the statement said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also spoke out on the confirmation, saying to members of the tribe “We are here for you. We cannot bring back those who were lost but we can and we will continue to tell the truth.”

B.C. Premier John Horgan also promised the tribe that the province is ready to help in whatever capacity is needed.

“We put resources in already on the table to get that initial work done, now we’re waiting,” he said.

What survivors like Charlie really want is for any discovered remains to be identified and brought home to their communities, so families can finally get a chance to say goodbye.

“I’m really hoping there can be some closure for the families and all the survivors. you know, to finally bring these children home,” he said.

Editor’s note: Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can call the 24/7 National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866 925-4419.


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