WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
An in-depth probe involving ground scans and historical research has revealed 17 more potential unmarked graves at the former site of a Vancouver Island residential school than are on public record, the Tseshaht First Nation announced Tuesday.
The First Nation released the findings in what it is calling Phase 1 of the “ʔuuʔatumin yaqckwiimitqin” (Doing It for Our Ancestors) project. The project has been underway for 18 months with the goal of uncovering the truth about atrocities committed at Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) and honouring children who did not make it home, in order for members of the community to heal.
So far, only 10 per cent of the approximately 300 hectares of land that was identified to be scanned has been examined. But already, radar has revealed at least 17 new potential burial sites of children who attended the residential school, though the only way to be sure is to excavate them which has not yet been decided on.
“Remember that those were just children. They were just children who passed away while here as AIRS students,” said Tseshaht First Nation Chief Wahmeesh, whose English name is Ken Watts.
The Tseshaht chief also said the probe confirmed that 67 students in total died in the school’s history, far higher than the 29 children reported to have died in the online memorial register put together by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Some of them managed to be brought back home while they were sick. Some didn’t. But it’s our job as Tseshaht to bring those spirits back as well and those family members…we’re going to deliver the information to the families that we know and we’re aware of because some of those students don’t have full names from the 67,” said Watts.
The project has been focusing on four pillars of the Tseshaht First Nation longhouse, said executive director Vicky White.
“First, the historic record, second, survivor’s statements, third, above the ground, which is LIDAR, fourth, below the ground, which is ground penetrating radar,” said White.
Researchers have been able to piece together a more accurate picture of what went on at the school by looking at both the survivor interviews and the scan results, though team lead Sheri Meding said a complete list of potential burial sites and the total number of student deaths will never be obtained, due to numerous missing or destroyed records. Some records are also inaccessible due to privacy legislation, and many survivors who could provide valuable information have already passed away.
“We also aware that it’s been 50 years since AIRS’ closure and the survivors who have passed on,” she said. “There are survivors in the past, particularly in the earlier generations like the 1940s, where there’s a gap that will never be filled because the documents aren’t there and those survivors aren’t with us to pass on their stories.”
Technician Brian Whiting with GeoScan, which performed the LIDAR and ground-penetrating scans of the school grounds, said the true number of potential unmarked graves may never be known.
“The other thing to say is especially here, given potentially the secret nature of the burial, the fact that…it might have been done hastily, might as well have been done shallow, shallow graves without a coffin — all of those combined make things much, much harder to find in terms of the geophysics,” said Whiting. “Also around here, the soil conditions and the fact that there’s so many roots in the forest make it even tougher, the preservation of any human remains or traces of graves are going to be that much harder.”
Watts noted many times throughout the presentation that many community members will find it traumatic and health and wellness support was available throughout the day for anyone who needed it.
Tuesday’s sharing of findings is considered Phase 1 of the project and members of the First Nation say they are painful but necessary for survivors and their families to heal.
“We hope that this can continue the conversation and the search for the children and their families, and all of us, and as a society,” said Watts.
The Alberni Indian Residential School, which operated from 1900 to 1973, was one of the many residential schools that operated in Canada in the late 19th century to the mid-20th century where Indigenous children were taken from their families and subjected to abuse, neglect, and cultural extermination at the hands of the Canadian government and Christian churches.
Many children did not survive the harsh conditions at these schools and their deaths went unrecorded. To this day, the exact number of children who lost their lives at these schools remains unknown, but it is estimated that thousands of Indigenous children did not make it home.
Meding said her research uncovered painful stories of specific examples of abuse that went on at AIRS: forced abortions, skulls and skeletal remains found by students in and around the residence grounds, small coffins being transported out of the building at night, and those are just a few examples of the horrors that went on.
“The historical record may refer to something as an accident, but the account that survivors gave was intentional harm by staff, and suicides. So really rethinking what’s in the official record,” she said.
Tseshaht Nation, like other Indigenous communities, launched the project following the shocking discovery of 215 potential grave sites at Kamloops Residential School in 2021 that thrust a conversation about racism and colonialism back into the national spotlight.
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.
With files from The Canadian Press.