On Monday (July 12), the Penelakut tribe informed that it has discovered 160 unmarked graves in the Southern Gulf Islands in the British Columbia province of Canada.
This is a fresh addition in the recent series of discoveries of unmarked graves and mass burial sites near former residential missionary schools.
As per reports, the island was once home to a missionary school named Kuper Island Residential School. The school remained operational between 1890 and the 1970s. The Penelakut tribe notified the other indigenous First Nation communities through an online newsletter. “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,” it said.
Penelakut tribe Chief Joan Brown added, “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. We are at another point in time where we must face trauma because of these acts of genocide. Each time we do, it is possible to heal a little more. Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is acting in spite of fear.”
The Penelakut tribe did not provide additional information about how the graves were discovered or whether any ground-penetrating radar technology was employed. Besides, no information was given about the possibility of children’s remains in the graves. Joan Brown invited community members to attend the March for the children in Chemainus on August 2 to remember the indigenous children who were forced into the Kuper Island Residential school programme. A majority of the deaths were caused due to neglect, tuberculosis, fires, injures from assault and rapes.
Reportedly, the school was often referred to as Canada’s Alcatraz due to the remote location of the school and the difficulty in escaping from it. It was run by Catholic Church, with funding from the federal government of Canada. It was only in 1969 that the government took over the administration of the school before shutting it down permanently in 1975. Records reveal that two sisters died while trying to escape from the school in 1959. Information is also available about a student, who committed suicide in 1966. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has records of 202 deaths of residential school students, including the Kuper Island Residential school.
Discovery of unmarked graves of the indigenous children in Canada
Earlier, 215 graves in Kamloops was found on May 27, 2021, and 751 graves in Saskatchewan were found just a week ago, on June 24. On June 30, another mass grave was reported near a former residential school in Canada. The Lower Kootenay Band, a member band of the Ktunaxa Nation, said that remains of 182 people were found in mass graves close to former St. Eugene’s Mission School in Cranbrook. The graves were spotted with the help of ground-penetrating radar.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a large number of indigenous children that attended residential schools never made it back to their home communities. Some children ran away while others died at the schools. These students are now called the “Missing Children”. The Missing Children Project documents and deaths and burial sites of such children who died while attending the residential schools. So far, the project has identified over 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school.
In a report published in 2015 after a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system, it was termed as “cultural genocide”. The report documented horrific details of abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities suffered by the students who attended the school. As many as 150,000 were known to have attended the school system between the 1840s and 1990s. The recently discovered remains of 215 are believed to be new burial sites and not included in the list of over 4,100 students who died at the schools.
The recent discoveries have sparked outrage and pain among the indigenous populations in Canada. There have also been retaliatory actions where several churches have faced arson attacks.