Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
‘Find our lost children.’
That’s the message and the driving force behind a recently-launched GoFundMe campaign on Vancouver Island.
Following the shocking discovery of what is believed to be 215 children buried in an unmarked site on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, some First Nations members on Vancouver Island knew they had to act.
Steve Sxwithultxw, a television producer and filmmaker, and a member of the Penelakut Tribe told Global News the past “few days have been a whirlwind.”
“As a person who attended residential school and has family that’s attended, it’s been really impactful on family and friends and First Nations communities across the country,” he said.
“It’s been a real gut punch.”
The discovery at the Kamloops school was made by using ground-penetrating radar, which can determine the depth, shape and size of something buried underground.
Sxwithultxw said he had a conversation with a good friend of his, master carver on Vancouver Island, Tom La Fortune, and they decided to start a GoFundMe.
“Let’s buy the darn equipment ourselves,” he said.
Sxwithultxw said the two men, along with his partner Michelle, assumed it would take a while for the fundraiser to gain traction and reach their goal, but it has just taken off.
“I wake up in the morning and I look at those numbers and think, ‘What is going on?’ Did people sleep or did they just donate through the night? It’s been incredible to see as an organizer,” he said.
Sxwithultwx is also no stranger to the residential school system.
He attended Kuper Island School on Kuper Island near Chemainus, Vancouver Island, in 1970 when he was only five years old.
Some of his sisters were also sent there.
“Those type of events affect you, as a five-year-old kid,” he said. “I don’t know how it wouldn’t but it’s been a challenge. It’s a story of isolation, of loneliness, of misunderstanding, not understanding why I was there and what was happening and why was I just a number?”
He said he was punished if he tried to see his sisters on the other side of the school and he tried to run away multiple times, but was brought back and punished both emotionally and physically.
“I know as a survivor, we don’t like to compare stories, but I know there are many other survivors out there and my heart is with them and their families,” he added.
“To bring out the truth is painful.”
Sxwithultwx said the goal, after buying the equipment, is to start liaising with organizations and groups to scan these former residential school sites.
They have already been in talks with GeoScan in Colwood and have received messages from other companies wanting to help.
There were five residential schools on Vancouver Island:
- Kuper Island Residential School – Penelakut Island
- St. Michaels Residential School – Alert Bay
- Christie (Clayoquot/Kakawis) School – Tofin/Mears Island
- Alberni Residential School – Port Alberni
- Ahousaht Residential School -Ahousaht Island
“I think there’s no doubt that there are other bodies at these sites. It’s been a lot of years, some of these sites have been overgrown, destroyed, so there’s work to be done to be talking to the elders and leadership of these communities, if they’re willing,” Sxwithultwx said, adding this is a plan “led by Indigenous people for Indigenous people.”
He said they’re still in the planning stage and building connections with nations across the province.
The money will be held in trust and Sxwithultwx said it will be used exclusively to scan the grounds of former residential schools.
“If we do find bodies like they did in Kamloops, it’s a whole other process for this country to embrace again and try to get through these terrible times with their local First Nations.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.