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Ontario police take measurements during the search for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar on land associated with the Mohawk Institute, a former Indian residential school in Brantford, Ont., on Nov. 9, 2021. A First Nation on Vancouver Island says it is ready to release the results of its preliminary investigation into possible unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school near Port Alberni, B.C.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press

Geological scans point to at least 17 unmarked graves on the property around the former Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island, the Tseshaht First Nation says.

According to the results of a preliminary search released Tuesday, researchers retained by the nation have also documented 67 students who died, and are calling for access to records of the province’s three Indian hospitals where some students were sent, and didn’t return.

Only 12 per cent of the 100-hectare area of interest has been searched so far using a combination of ground penetrating radar (GPR) and other scanning technology, says Tseshaht Elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh, whose English name is Ken Watts.

“This is just the first phase of many. We barely skimmed the surface,” he said.

Children from at least 70 First Nations from British Columbia attended the Port Alberni school, which operated from 1892 until 1973. The names of the 67 children have not been released, as the nation seeks to meet with each of the families of those identified.

“A total number will never be known,” said Sheri Meding, lead researcher. She said the overwhelming cause of death was illness owing to the unhealthy conditions at the school. The researchers based their findings on accounts from survivors, who were able to point to multiple locations of unmarked graves. As well, the team combed through what records they could find, but Ms. Meding noted that much of the documentation is incomplete or misleading.

The Tseshaht commissioned GeoScan, a provider of GPR services, to conduct ground surveys. Its archeological geophysics expert, Brian Whiting, said his findings of 17 potential graves is “indirect evidence” that cannot be confirmed without exhumation. He said the deeply forested terrain is challenging – impossible in some places – to survey.

“The number you see is a minimum,” Mr. Whiting said.

Mr. Watts, speaking Tuesday to a packed hall including many residential school survivors, called for the federal government to pull down the school’s remaining buildings, including the gymnasium where Tuesday’s announcement was made, and to replace them with a community multiplex. His nation is also asking for an independent investigation into the RCMP’s role in taking children from their homes to bring them to residential schools across Canada.

The findings are based on 18 months of work in the area around the site, mirroring probes at other former residential schools across B.C. and Canada.

Survivors of the Alberni institution were on the forefront in pushing for justice for Canada’s residential-school system.

Arthur Henry Plint, who was a dorm supervisor at the school, was imprisoned in 1997 for assaulting 16 Indigenous boys who were between the ages of six and 13, over two decades. He was not the only member of staff convicted of sexual abuse, but Mr. Plint’s case led the presiding judge, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth, to describe Canada’s residential-school system as “nothing more than institutionalized pedophilia,” while he branded Mr. Plint a “sexual terrorist.”

The charges against Mr. Plint arose from a study started in 1992 by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which includes the Tseshaht. In addition to physical and sexual abuse, researchers found that children at the school were denied food and health care treatment in order to study the effects of malnutrition in the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Watts said no one has been held accountable for those experiments.

Across the country, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and communities and sent to church-run residential schools beginning in the 19th century. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented more than 4,100 deaths in the schools, but it noted huge gaps in the available records of deceased students’ names, genders or even causes of death.

Among its calls to action, the TRC says Canada needs to develop a clear plan to tell families where their lost loved ones are buried and make sure cemeteries are well maintained.