For survivors of the former St. Eugene’s Mission residential school in the southeastern corner of British Columbia, the discovery of 182 human remains in unmarked graves nearby is both traumatizing and a confirmation of their experiences.
Jack Kruger, who attended the school for two years in the 1950s, has talked often of the abuse and violence he experienced there. Until unmarked graves began to make the news in Kamloops in May, he felt nobody believed him.
“It’s now coming to light that what we survivors have been saying for years is the truth,” he said from his home in Penticton, B.C. “For the children who went there, we are not one bit surprised by this.”
The community of Aqam, one of four bands that make up the Ktunaxa Nation, said its leadership decided to start a search using ground-penetrating radar after an unknown, unmarked grave was disturbed in its cemetery last year. The community used the technology to search cemetery grounds near Cranbrook that is close to the former St. Eugene’s school, which was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s.
Preliminary results released Wednesday from the investigation found 182 unmarked graves within the cemetery grounds, “with some being only three to four feet deep,” Aqam said in a statement Wednesday. The community said it is difficult to tell whether these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the school, but that the issue of children victimized in these schools and buried in unmarked graves is of “grave concern.”
Grief and anger have intensified in recent weeks after announcements by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation in British Columbia and Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan of the discovery of nearly 1,000 unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools.
Much of the outrage is aimed at the Catholic Church, which ran the majority of the schools. On Wednesday, police said they were investigating a suspicious fire at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Indian Brook, N.S., the latest after a string of fires reported in B.C. and Alberta.
At a press conference, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations said of the most recent discovery: “This is a validation of what the survivors have been saying – that there are unmarked graves and that there has been deaths in these institutions.”
“The whole system of residential schools was a genocide. I’ve called it that and we see the intergenerational trauma and feel the effects to this day,” Perry Bellegarde said.
At all 139 residential school sites across Canada, he said, “each and every one of those sites needs to be investigated properly.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this is a “terrible and shameful” part of Canada’s history. “It’s not simply about looking back and highlighting and underlining and condemning actions of the past,” he said at a Wednesday press conference. “It’s also about taking a hard look at ourselves as a country right now.”
Mr. Kruger still has nightmares stemming from his time at St. Eugene’s, where his closest friend died by suicide at six years of age, he said. “He got raped twice by a priest and decided he wanted to kill himself,” Mr. Kruger said. “Think about that. How bad does it have to be for a six-year-old child to be driven to something like that?”
Students, he said, were given the task of disposing of remains when children died. Any child who questioned the punishment doled out by school staff was told they had the devil in them, he said. He does recall police investigating cases of missing children at the school during his time there, but priests would thwart their inquiries, he said, with a single phone call to town officials. “Those religious figures held great sway.”
“Between the nightmares and the news, we’re all in mourning right now. But this is only the beginning. There will be many, many more graves.”
The constant rollout of difficult news has been hard on survivors, according to Patsy Nicholas, health program manager for Akisqnuk First Nation, a Ktunaxa community located near Windermere, B.C. Many area survivors want to talk through their trauma with someone, but few mental-health professionals can adequately relate to their experiences, said Ms. Nicholas, who spent nine years at St. Eugene’s before it closed.
“As a front-line health worker, that’s where my mind is right now, focusing on getting resources together so our survivors can talk to people face to face,” she said. “We need help with that. The truth is coming out, but I don’t know that we’ll ever see the reconciliation.”
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented 4,117 deaths at residential schools, where Indigenous children were abused, neglected, malnourished and exposed to diseases, and estimates that there are thousands more.
In its statement Wednesday, Aqam leadership said the search for unmarked graves began last year. While conducting some remedial work around its cemetery – which is near the former residential school and the current site of the St. Eugene Resort – an unknown, unmarked grave was disturbed. The St. Eugene Resort, a year-round facility that includes a hotel, golf course and casino, is owned by four Ktunaxa communities and the Shuswap Indian Band.
“Leadership would like to stress that although these findings are tragic, they are still undergoing analysis and the history of this area is a complex one,” the Aqam statement said, as the cemetery is also located near a hospital; some people who died in the hospital were buried in the Aqam cemetery.
The former St. Eugene’s Mission residential school, it said, is adjacent to the cemetery site, and was attended by hundreds of Ktunaxa children as well as children from neighbouring First Nations and communities. Further ground-penetrating radar work will be done on the site, it said.
The statement didn’t say which party conducted the recent radar work, but said that there are plans to work with external parties to identify as many graves as possible “and to memorialize all unknown graves with stone markers to ensure that no soul is truly forgotten.”
With the announcements in Kamloops, of the discovery of 215 children’s remains, some as young as three years old, followed by Cowessess and now Cranbrook, Canada Day will be marked differently this year, Mr. Bellegarde said.
“Those 215 young people’s spirits have woken up everybody, not only in Canada, but the world, about the need to work together and not forget the harm and the hurt and the death that happened here.”
The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.
With reports from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver, Janice Dickson in Ottawa and The Canadian Press
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