First Nations Community in B.C Has Found More than 160 Unmarked Graves

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.

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.

Steve Sxwithul’txw is a member of the Penelakut Tribe who 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 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.

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 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.

Prime Minister 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.”

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,” St. Pierre said.

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 to have 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.”

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