WARNING: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers.
c̓išaaʔatḥ (Tseshaht) First Nation has spent the past 18 months researching records to figure out how many children died while at Alberni Indian Residential School. They’ve also been working with B.C.-based land surveyor GeoScan to identify suspected graves on the former school’s grounds by using ground penetrating radar.
This work is part of a project called ʔuuʔatumin yaqckwiimitqin (Doing It for Our Ancestors).
As part of phase one, the research revealed that 67 children died while at Alberni Indian Residential School and the ground penetrating radar revealed that there are 17 geophysical features representing suspected graves from the surveyed area.
A little more than 10 per cent of the 100 hectares intended to be surveyed has already been scanned. Determining where to look has been guided by historical records and survivors.
Alberni Indian Residential School was in operation from 1900 until 1973 — which Nuu-chah-nulth leaders helped shut down — and children from at least 70 First Nations across the province were forced to attend. “A school that we never asked for, and a school that we never consented to,” said Tseshaht Elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts).
“We never consented for it to be placed on our territory, but we are doing our part to educate the world about what happened at Alberni Indian Residential School. There cannot be reconciliation without truth.”
Wahmeesh shared the story of “Susie” a Gitxsan-Tsimshian child who didn’t speak English and was taken away from her family by the RCMP to Alberni Indian Residential School. He shared her experiences of verbal and emotional abuse from being told she couldn’t speak her language and that she was a “good-for-nothing Indian.”
He shared stories of the horrific things she had to witness from physical to sexual abuse.
In 1995, a former supervisor at the school was convicted of 18 counts of indecent assault against Indigenous students. He was at the school from 1948 to 1968 and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
But Wahmeesh also shared stories of comradery between students and how they banded together to protect and support one another.
“All of these ‘students’ were just children. Think about what would happen today if children who were five years old were taken from their home,” he said.
“But there’s hope and truth. The reason we can get up and speak our language and dance today is because of all of our survivors. Thank you for surviving.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission told Canadians back in 2015 that there were undocumented and unmarked graves at many of the country’s 139 former Indian residential schools. This fact didn’t gain national attention however until May 2021 when Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announced what they believed to be 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
After those findings, the Canadian government launched funding support for communities through the Residential Schools Missing Children Community Support fund.
This funding is meant to support communities in doing their own research and knowledge gathering, commemoration and memorialization as well as field investigation. Tseshaht was provided with $554,000 to help complete some of this work.
Through research, the community was able to identity the names of the 67 children who died at Alberni Indian Residential School. They’ve chosen bears as representations of the children and plan to deliver the bears to the families the 67 children belong to.
Stories like these will continue to surface as communities try to find and identify buried children.
“This isn’t just another number. For survivors this is the truth they’ve been sharing from the very beginning,” said Wahmeesh. “Knowing that some children never made it home. This is verifying what they’ve always known.”
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.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line provides immediate, toll-free telephone and online-chat based emotional support and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This service is available 24/7 in English and French, and upon request in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut.
Trained counsellors are available by phone at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.