WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
A Vancouver Island First Nation is performing its first ground-penetrating scans for unmarked graves at the former site of a residential school beginning Monday.
Tseshaht First Nation, one of western Vancouver Island’s 14 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, says it’s launching the first phase of the search at the former Alberni Residential School, which closed in 1973.
A surveying company called GeoScan will carry out the work alongside the First Nation.
“They have prior experience scanning other residential school sites and are committed to leading this project with cultural protocols in mind,” Tseshaht First Nation said in a statement. “Scanning will be conducted with compassion and care so as not to disrupt possible burial locations.”
The work will take approximately two weeks and no photography, media or video will be permitted at scanning sites — and a Transport Canada no-fly zone will be implemented overhead — in accordance with cultural protocols.
Once the work is completed and analyzed, results from the scan will be shared in a formal report.
“We recognize this work may be difficult for our people and those who carry memories connected to residential schools. Together we are working to find answers from the past and bring truth to the present,” said the First Nation.
Alberni Residential School was originally built as a girls’ school by the Presbyterian Church in 1893. Children from the Tseshaht First Nation were sent there against their wills and forcibly separated from their parents, and many endured physical, sexual and mental abuse at the hands of staff members. The school also attempted to erase the Nuu-chah-nulth language spoken by most of its students.
In total, Vancouver Island was home to a total of five residential schools: Alberni, St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, Ahousaht Residential School on Flores Island, Christie Indian Residential School on Meares Island off Tofino and Kuper Island Residential School on Penelakut Island just off Chemainus.
For the past year since Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation in Kamloops discovered unmarked graves, First Nations leaders where the schools happen to be located on Vancouver Island have been struggling with a new responsibility they never asked for.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of high emotions. And a focus on what the results will be with respect to how those bodies are going to be dealt with. Because I think we’re going to be facing the same thing,” Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Councillor Elmer Frank told CHEK News last month.
The British Columbia government said in June 2021 it is providing $12 million to support First Nations with investigative work at former residential school sites.
Ottawa has pledged further support for the identification and investigation of burial grounds near former residential schools after allocating $27 million in 2019.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools. The Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24/7 at 1-866-925-4419.
With files from CHEK’s Kori Sidaway and April Lawrence.