It’s an isolated community surrounded by beauty — but Ahousaht was also home to an ugly part of this country’s history.
Ahousaht Residential School, run by the United Church, was known for its severe punishments and violence. Thirteen students are known to have died there and now a search is about to begin to possibly find even more.
“It affects me emotionally knowing there’s the potential we will find [unmarked graves],” said Ahousaht Chief Greg Louie. “We hope we don’t but at the same time we know if there is, there has to be some closure to that,” he said.
A GoFundMe campaign to help residential school communities search for missing children has raised more than $150,000. $75,000 of that will help Ahousaht begin their search with ground penetrating radar.
The funding will also help search the site of the former Christie Residential School, also in Ahousaht territory. It’s a school Louie himself attended.
“People will be triggered, there will be emotions, in many forms, so we need to be prepared for that,” said Louie.
Most of the nations that housed the five Vancouver Island residential schools are either planning or already conducting searches for unmarked graves, taking it upon themselves after years of failing to get government funding.
“Ultimately it came down to Kamloops and other communities just going ahead and proceeding and just finding ways and means to do this work really without a lot of support,” said Ry Moran, Reconciliation Librarian at UVic and founder of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The federal government has since committed $27.1 million to help conduct searches and the B.C. government has committed $12 million.
READ MORE: More than 160 unmarked graves confirmed near residential school on Penelakut Island
After the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves in Kamloops and Saskatchewan those involved in residential school research say the original estimate of 4,100 student deaths is likely as high as 15,000. And they’re pleading with people not to become numb as more discoveries are made.
“To not look away, to not let your heart become hardened over as these terrible histories are becoming manifest, to challenge yourself individually to remain supportive, engaged, active and very human feeling on this,” said Moran.
“All you have to do if you’re ever in doubt is remind yourself what if this was your child? What if this was your grandchild? What if this was your niece or nephew?”
An event is being planned for Saturday in Victoria to hand over the $75,000 of donations to the Ahousaht First Nation. While the nation says the funding will help them get started they have also applied for $200,000 in federal funding to expand the scope of the project.