British Columbia·Beyond Kamloops

6 more First Nations in B.C. launch investigations into residential school sites

Leaders of six First Nations across B.C. confirm they have begun the process of investigating the sites of former residential schools on their territories for possible unmarked graves.

Leaders confirm search efforts following discovery of 200 potential unmarked graves near Kamloops school

Mourners gather outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School back in June to honour the children forced to attend the school who never made it home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

It is the early days of the investigation, but 'Namgis Chief Councillor Don Svanvik says he expects to find the worst at St. Michael's Indian Residential School.

In July, 'Namgis First Nation Council announced it was seeking an expert to help with a search for unmarked burial grounds around the site of the residential school in Alert Bay, B.C., on Vancouver Island, that operated from 1894 to 1974.

"I believe they probably will find [unmarked graves] on every site," he said. "It's just a very difficult and delicate situation."

In May, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc announced that ground-penetrating radar helped find approximately 200 potential unmarked burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

WATCH | The National's report on the Kamloops residential school findings:

Survivor stories, discovery of tooth led to search of former B.C. residential school grounds

1 year ago
Duration 3:24
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. A report from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc released Thursday detailed the discovery of unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and how the search was sparked by the stories of survivors and finding a child’s tooth and rib bone.

The discovery has sparked investigations from other Indigenous communities in B.C. and other parts of Canada, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Yukon.

CBC News contacted 18 First Nations leaders across B.C. to ask whether they planned on investigating the grounds of residential schools on their territory.

Six leaders, those from the Ahousaht, Tseshaht, Williams Lake, Tla-o'qui-aht, 'Namgis and Squamish First Nations, confirmed work was underway, with some hiring archeologists, consultant co-ordinators and drone operators.

They also described the psychological and emotional toll these investigations take on their communities, particularly residential school survivors and the families of children who never returned home. The leaders say they plan to increase mental health supports to help those in need.

In addition to Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc, two other First Nations in the province continue their previously reported investigations.

In June, the Lower Kootenay Band announced ground-penetrating radar found 182 unmarked graves near the site of St. Eugene's Mission School in Cranbrook.

Last month, the Penelakut Tribe in the Southern Gulf Islands reported at least 160 "undocumented and unmarked graves" were found in the area of the Kuper Island Residential School. 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.

The Kuper Island Residential School opened in 1889 on Penelakut Island, formerly known as Kuper Island. It closed in 1975. (The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate)

"This brings back a lot of terrible memories in people," said Svanvik, noting that St. Michael's Indian Residential School was attended by children up and down the coast.

"We've got to do this work, do it well, and make sure that we're able to look after the people most affected — the survivors."

Investigations informed by terrain

Complicating matters is the fact that some sites of former schools have already been redeveloped.

Others were located on rugged terrain, which can pose problems for ground-penetrating radar.

"[Alberni Indian Residential School] site is different from other areas … because it was on a rock bluff," Tseshaht First Nation Chief Councillor Ken Watts said of the site in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island.

"There's homes there now…. Part of our funding is to do excavation work." 

Tseshaht First Nation Chief Councillor Ken Watts tells CBC News that while the Indigenous community suspected there were unmarked graves on residential school sites, there is no way to prepare for what the investigations reveal. (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council)

Twenty-one residential schools operated in B.C. between 1887 and 1984.

Amendments to the Indian Act authorized the federal government to remove Indigenous children from their families and place them in a residential school, if they felt they were not being properly cared for or educated.

The children were forced to learn English, embrace Christianity and adopt the customs of white settlers, often under the threat of violence.

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimates 150,000 students were forced to attend residential schools nationwide, though the number may have been higher.

The TRC has also identified more than 4,100 children who died at these institutions, though TRC officials suspect that number may also be much higher.

Many of the First Nations leaders interviewed by the CBC said they believe they'll find more unmarked graves.

"We don't know 100 per cent, obviously," said Williams Lake Chief Willie Sellars. "But oral histories and the stories that we continue to hear from ... those survivors are telling us that we are going to find something over there."

Questions of closure

But while many of those interviewed expect the worst, they also say the process will be deliberate and measured.

"We don't want to do things quick; we want to do things right," said Ahousaht Chief Councillor Greg Louie. "If it takes a year, if it takes two years … we're not going to say, 'Get this done in one year,' because there's so much work to be done."

The B.C. government announced it would make up to $475,000 available to help First Nations with this work.

The federal government also committed $321 million in funding for programs to help First Nations search burial sites at former residential schools and to support survivors and their communities.

Gabriel George, director of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation's Treaty Lands and Resources Department, says the discovery of unmarked graves is a chance for his people to awaken their strength and to connect the spirits of the dead with their ancestors. (CBC/Christian Amundson)

However, as work gets underway, many of those interviewed by the CBC said they are uncertain whether the process will produce meaningful closure for those most affected.

"In order for us to even begin to talk about closure, everything that has happened to our people needs to be acknowledged," said Gabriel George, director of Treaty Lands and Resources Department for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose traditional territory spans parts of North Vancouver.

"This is not something that can be swept under the rug."

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 Wawmeesh Hamilton