Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Steve Sxwithul’txw was only five years old when he was sent to what was known as the Kuper Island Indian Residental School, located on what is now called Penelakut Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands.
On Monday, it was revealed the Penelakut Tribe found more than 160 undocumented and unmarked graves at the site.
“It’s disheartening, it’s painful, it’s a reflection of a time that wasn’t that long ago,” Sxwithul’txw told Global News Tuesday morning.
“I admit I wasn’t terribly surprised, I knew some of the work had been going on for some time back home.”
The school, which was first opened at the site in 1889, became known among the students who attended as Alcatraz, due to its isolated island location and the difficulty to get on and off the island.
Alcatraz was a U.S. federal prison located on an island off the coast of San Francisco from 1934 to 1963.
“It was a confusing time for a five-year-old boy,” Sxwithul’txw added, who attended in 1970. “The two sides of the school were separated between the girl’s side and the boy’s side so they weren’t allowed to really communicate with each other.”
His sisters were on the other side and he said if he tried to see them or talk with them he was punished.
“When you’re put in a place where you suddenly don’t have access to your family, it’s very confusing,” he added.
“There was nowhere to run, there was nowhere to hide. It’s an island. I was always brought back.”
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, students set fire to the school in 1896 when holidays were cancelled.
The centre lists the names of 120 students who died while attending the Kuper Island school. The dates of death are not known for 22 of those students.
It is known two sisters drowned while trying to escape the school in 1959 and another student died by suicide in 1966.
The school was under Catholic administration but was taken over by the federal government in 1969. It was closed in 1975.
One former employee, oblate brother Glenn Doughty, who worked at the school from 1967 to 1986, was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing students. He was sentenced to three years, after serving other sentences for sexually assaulting students at other residential schools.
“I think for myself and many others it was part of the plan of the clergy and the government to strip us of our family lineage, of our background, of our customs, of our culture,” Sxwithul’txw said.
“It’s someplace that was quite secure for the church in knowing that there’s no place to go for the students.”
“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. “To members of the Penelakut Tribe: we are here for you.”
Sxwithul’txw said they get a lot of sympathy from the government and Trudeau, but there is little else.
He would like to see a special prosecutor assigned to investigate what happened and to get the United Nations involved.
“We need your support and we need your compassion and it’s really important for us right now,” he added.
Sxwithultxw, who is also a television producer and filmmaker, has started a GoFundMe with a few others to use ground-penetrating radar to search other residential school sites in B.C.
“I know there’s been talk about this for a number of years from survivors that there are bodies in and around schools and unmarked,” he said.
“I think communities better prepare themselves for more announcements.”
The news on Penelakut Island comes after several similar discoveries were reported on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada.
In May, the remains of what’s believed to be 215 children were found at the site of what was once the Kamloops Residential School in B.C. That was followed in June by unveilings of hundreds of remains in Brandon, Man., Saskatchewan’s Cowessess First Nation and Cranbrook, B.C.
To date, the number of remains reported to be found across the country totals well over 1,000.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation is expected to detail its findings at the former Kamloops school on Thursday.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.