Canada: at least 160 more unmarked graves found in British Columbia

  • Penelakut Tribe says graves found close to ex-residential school
  • Kuper Island school run by Catholic church closed in 1975

A First Nations community in western Canada has announced the discovery of at least 160 unmarked graves close to a former residential school – the latest in a series of grim announcements from across the country in recent weeks.

Members of the Penelakut Tribe in south-western British Columbia said in a statement late on Monday that the graves had been discovered near the site of the Kuper Island industrial school on Penelakut Island, nearly 90km north of the provincial capital Victoria.

“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighbouring communities attended the Kuper Island industrial school. We also recognized with a tremendous amount of grief and loss that too many did not return home,” said chief Joan Brown in the statement.

At least 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools across the country, which were funded by the federal government and run by churches as part of the campaign to strip the youth of their cultural identity.

Those familiar with the systematic neglect and abuse at the schools had predicted more unmarked graves would be uncovered after the first discoveries in British Columbia and Saskatchewan shocked the country last month.

On Tuesday, prime minister Justin Trudeau said his “heart breaks” for the Penelakut Tribe and for Indigenous people across the country. “The [graves] reaffirm a truth they have long known,” he said.

Kuper Island school, operated by the Catholic church, was open from 1890 to 1975 and gained notoriety as a dangerous institution.

Two sisters drowned while trying to flee the school in the 1950s, and another student died by suicide in 1966, according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

Former employee Glenn Doughty, who worked at the school in the 1960s and 1970s, was convicted of sexually abusing students in 2002. He was sentenced to three years, after serving other sentences for sexual assaulting students at other residential schools.

During the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, survivors recounted being “kidnapped” and forcefully brought to the school and the fear many felt within the institution’s walls.

“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,” Brown wrote.

The community plans on holding two healing sessions in the coming weeks, as well as a march to commemorate the generations of children lost to the residential school system.

“We are at another point in time where we must face the trauma because of these acts of genocide. Each time we do, it is possible to heal a little more,” Brown wrote.

The announcement from the Penelakut Tribe comes ahead of an expected report from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation on Thursday. The First Nation says it will provide greater detail on the 215 unmarked graves discovered using ground penetrating radar in late May.

• This article was amended on 12 August 2021 to correct the dates that Glenn Doughty is believed to have worked at Kuper Island school.


Leyland Cecco in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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