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The Kuper Island Indian Residential School on Penelakut Island, B.C. in a June 19, 1941 archive photo.HANDOUT/Library and Archives Canada via Reuters

In February, 1999, Mounties in British Columbia zeroed in on a cold patch of ground near the old Kuper Island Residential School and began digging.

As members of a provincial squad focused on residential-school abuse, they had interviewed nearly 400 former students and heard stories of sexual abuse that would haunt some officers into retirement. But the Kuper Island dig was their most tangible encounter with that history.

A former Kuper Island student had told them of an unmarked gravesite near the school, which operated in various forms from 1889 until 1975, so officers hired a contractor to start excavating.

The dig was part of the B.C. RCMP Native Indian Residential School Task Force, a province-wide probe that lasted from 1994 until 2003 with the goal identifying and charging those responsible for abuse in the province’s residential schools.

Today, despite growing demands across the country for a school-by-school investigation of residential-school atrocities, B.C. remains the only province that has come anywhere close to answering the call.

“When I think about it now, we may have been 20 or 30 years ahead of our time,” said Charlene Belleau, a task force co-ordinator and former chief of Esk’etemc First Nation in B.C.’s Interior. “The reason it wasn’t adopted in other regions is that residential schools were never a priority. But they are now.”

B.C. residential school’s story starts with abuse, ends in fire, but points toward justice

Investigators on the B.C. task force interviewed more than 376 victims concerning 515 allegations of sexual assault and 435 allegations of physical assault. In all, they identified 180 suspects, of whom one-third were already dead.

A Globe and Mail story on Saturday outlined how the task force tracked down Ben Garand, whose abuse of boys at Lower Post Residential School in northern B.C. during the 1950s had been enabled by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

The Kuper Island excavation provides another measure of the task force’s readiness to explore leads. After digging down more than a metre, the Kuper Island search proved inconclusive. If remains had been buried on the site, the wet soil conditions would have obliterated any trace long before, the Mounties determined.

“The results were not definitive,” said retired officer Stephen Thatcher, a member of the task force who supervised the dig. “But I think it was important to the witness, and maybe to the larger community, that there was at least an effort to search and validate the story we’d been presented.”

Today, in light of several First Nations announcing the detection of unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar, Indigenous leaders have called for the kind of systematic investigation that the B.C. task force attempted 25 years ago.

“In calling for criminal investigations into the Indian Residential School system, we are simply asking for this country’s colonial justice systems to do the actual work of reconciliation,” said Jerry Daniels, Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 First Nations communities in southern Manitoba.

The RCMP is giving no indication that it will direct any future residential-school probes from Ottawa, saying discretion lies with the provinces and individual communities. “Any support undertaken by the RCMP would be Indigenous-led, community-based, survivor-centric and culturally sensitive,” force spokeswoman Robin Percival said in a statement.

B.C. launched its investigation in the early 1990s, after detachments began fielding a surge of complaints about sexual abuse at residential schools. One of the early members assigned to the file was Bob Paulson, future commissioner of the RCMP.

He came to appreciate how the institution he served also perpetuated the suffering. During one interview with a homeless abuse victim in Terrace, Mr. Paulson said he broke down in tears when the interviewee told of trying to escape residential school over and over only to be hauled back by Mounties. “He was trying to tell them what was happening to him at this school and nobody listened and they just kept sending him back,” said Mr. Paulson.

Task force officers began their posting with a week-long workshop in Vancouver to learn about the history of residential schools and prepare for the difficult stories they would hear. They operated under a unique protocol created by the RCMP, the province and Indigenous leaders to avoid retraumatizing former students. The protocol gave witnesses and complainants an unusual degree of control over how their information could be used and limited the ways officers could contact victims, relying instead on a public-relations campaign to encourage people to come forward.

Other provinces have conducted focused investigations on individual schools, such as Fort Alexander in Manitoba and St. Anne’s in Ontario, but nothing as broad as the B.C. approach.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former Saskatchewan Provincial Court judge and director of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, questions whether the B.C. task force is worth emulating. The probe concluded in 2003 with convictions of 14 people.

“I don’t want to be overly critical of it, but it’s kind of shocking – how could there be 400 victims and 200 perpetrators identified and yet so little action,” she said “I just don’t know how robust the investigation was.”

It’s time the criminal justice system did more on residential schools, Mr. Paulson said, whatever form that takes.

“I believe that there is a duty to respond to the scope and scale of the allegations in a systematic way,” he said. “And I think that requires, given how criminal justice is managed provincially, that it be done province by province, systematically and thoroughly. The clock is ticking.”

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