British Columbia

B.C. First Nation says more than 160 unmarked graves found

The Penelakut Tribe in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands says it has found more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves in the area, which was also once home to the Kuper Island Residential School.

Penelakut Tribe notifies neighbouring communities about discovery, Catholic diocese issues apology

Students in the classroom at Kuper Island Residential School. The school operated from 1890 to the 1970s on Penelakut Island, formerly known as Kuper Island. (The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

The Penelakut Tribe in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands says it has found more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves in the area, which was also once home to the Kuper Island Residential School.

The tribe informed neighbouring First Nations communities of the discovery in a newsletter posted online on Monday morning.

"We are inviting you to join us in our work to raise awareness of the Kuper Island Industrial School, and confirmation of the 160+ undocumented and unmarked graves in our grounds and foreshore," the notice said. 

No further details were provided. The tribe did not say how the graves were found, whether children's remains are suspected of being buried there or whether ground-penetrating radar was used. 

Officials did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. 

The Penelakut Tribe's announcement follows a series of similar, grim discoveries linked to other residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan. (The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate)

Researchers, tribe working at site 

The school operated from 1890 to the 1970s on Penelakut Island, formerly known as Kuper Island, which is among the Southern Gulf Islands. It was run by the Catholic Church with federal government funding.

Eric Simons, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, has been working with the Penelakut Tribe at the former school site, where he said researchers have been working on and off since 2014.

The facility was demolished in the 1980s, and Simons said the location has been a challenge for both researchers and the community.

"Where it once stood is the core or centre of the main Penelakut town, so people live around that space."

He said the fact that people had knowledge of missing children being buried on the land but didn't know specifically where the graves were located has caused "emotional and spiritual stress."

Steve Sxwithul'txw, a member of the Penelakut Tribe, was forced to attend the facility on Kuper Island in the 1970s.

He told CBC's The Early Edition Tuesday morning that work is still ongoing to determine if the graves contain the buried remains of residential school students.

I have relatives that have died over there, so I would like to know, and I think it's important that they get the proper respect and burial that they deserve.​​​​- Steve Sxwithul'txw, residential school survivor

"I know some families want to identify their lost loved ones and bring them home in a proper way," said Sxwithul'txw.

"And personally, for me, I have relatives that have died over there, so I would like to know, and I think it's important that they get the proper respect and burial that they deserve."

In 2019, when the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation released the names of almost 3,000 children who died in residential schools, Sxwithul'txw noticed eight with the same last name he was born with.

He said there are probably additional locations in and around the island that were used as burial grounds by the Catholic clergy that could still be searched.

Steve Sxwithul'txw sits on the stairs at the site of the former Kuper Island Residential School where he was sent at five years old. More than 120 Kuper Island students were listed among the 2,800 names released by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation of students who died at the schools. (Submitted by Steve Sxwithul'txw)

Bishop pledges to 'listen with humility and respect'

On Tuesday afternoon, Bishop Gary Gordon issued an apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria.

"The Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria grieves for the victims of the Kuper Island Residential School and apologizes for its role in the operation of residential schools. Our hearts go out in sadness for the little ones who were torn from their families and never returned home," Gordon said in a written statement.

WATCH | B.C. First Nation says more than 160 unmarked graves found: 

First Nation says 160 unmarked graves found on B.C. island

2 years ago
Duration 2:07
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. The Penelakut Tribe says it has found at least 160 unmarked graves on its lands and is informing communities whose members attended Kuper Island Residential School. The school was located on Penelakut Island, one of the Southern Gulf Islands.

He said he is committed to the process of healing and reconciliation and that the diocese is ready to help Indigenous communities search for loved ones who were lost at the Kuper Island facility.

"We now listen with humility and respect, as the direction to go and the steps to be taken in response to these disclosures must lie in the hands of the communities and Indigenous people most affected. We commit to being accountable and contributing to these next-step solutions," Gordon said.

He added that the archival records related to the school were handed over to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and are available at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

More accountability needed: tribe member

The British Columbia government said in June 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.

Sxwithul'txw says additional government funding is one step in the right direction, but he would also like to see more government accountability.

"First Nations shouldn't have to be paying to find their children in any way, shape or form," he said.

"I don't see the prime minister doing much in reference to holding anybody to account other than, you know, dropping by and saying a few words and putting a teddy bear down."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits a memorial at the eternal flame on Parliament Hill on June 1, in recognition of the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the findings during a news conference Tuesday, offering support for the Penelakut Tribe.

"I recognize these findings only deepen the pain that families, survivors, and all Indigenous peoples and communities are already feeling, and that they reaffirm a truth that they have long known," he said. 

Trudeau said the government will continue to tell the truth and work in partnership with First Nations to fight systemic racism with "real, concrete actions."

Province awaiting direction of communities

B.C. Premier John Horgan said he and the prime minister are both serious about ensuring the provincial and federal governments can offer support when called upon by Indigenous communities.

"It would be, I think, premature for us to do anything other than to await the direction of the communities that are going through, not just the grieving of the revelations of these discoveries, but generational trauma from survivors, children of survivors, grandchildren of survivors," he said.

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Elmer St. Pierre voiced his support for the Penelakut Tribe as it works through the findings. 

"It is clear that Canada is only in the beginning stages of this public reckoning with their history of the residential schools," he said.

WATCH | Indigenous leader hopes Canadians 'awake' to experience of First Nations:

Finding more unmarked graves in B.C. 'hurts so much,' says First Nations leader

2 years ago
Duration 7:20
Bob Chamberlin, the former vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, hopes Canadians are 'awake' to the experience of First Nations in Canada after the Penelakut Tribe in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands says it found more than 160 unmarked graves near the former Kuper Island Residential School.

More discoveries to come, Indigenous leader says

Bob Chamberlin, former vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the discoveries made in recent months, including this one, are just the beginning. 

"What we're going to find is ... a very large number of unmarked graves across this country, which are going to speak very loudly about the path that this country set out to destroy children, family, culture, language, traditions and remove us from our land which everyone is enjoying today, except First Nations," he said.

"I encourage every Canadian to make sure that this does not fall by the wayside, that the consciousness that is emerging across this country leads to substantive changes."

On Thursday, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation near Kamloops, B.C., is expected to reveal further details of its recent discovery, on the grounds of another former residential school, of what were said to be the buried remains of an estimated 215 children.

A series of similar, grim announcements followed, linked to former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

Penelakut Chief Joan Brown encouraged residential school survivors to heal in the newsletter.

"It is impossible to get over acts of genocide and human rights violations. Healing is an ongoing process, and sometimes it goes well, and sometimes we lose more people because the burden is too great," Brown said.

She invited community members to participate in the March for the Children in Chemainus, B.C., on Aug. 2 to remember the students who were forced to attend the Kuper Island Residential School and to move forward on the path to healing and reconciliation.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from The Early Edition, The Canadian Press, Bridgette Watson and Courtney Dickson