The Penelakut Tribe reports the confirmation of more than 160 “undocumented and unmarked graves” on its lands in the Southern Gulf Islands adjacent to Chemainus, B.C.
Penelakut has four reserves located across the islands, which are just east of Vancouver Island. One of them, Penelakut Island, was formerly known as Kuper Island and home to the Kuper Island Indian Residential School.
Penelakut notified its neighbouring communities of the confirmation in a letter dated July 8, which was posted online by the Cowichan Tribes on Monday.
“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighboring communities attended the Kuper Island Industrial School,” said Chief Joan Brown, council and Elders in the letter.
“We also recognize with a tremendous amount of grief and loss, that too many did not return home. It is impossible to get over acts of genocide and human rights violations.”
The Kuper Island institution ran for 85 years between 1890 and 1975. The pupils set it on fire in 1896 when holidays were cancelled.
A survey taken that year showed that 107 of 264 former students had died, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
The institution’s principal described the structure’s dilapidated condition as “insanitary” and “ruinous” in 1908.
The Catholic Church operated the school until it was taken over by the federal government under prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1969.
In 1995 a former employee at the school pled guilty to three charges of indecent assault and gross indecency, according to the NCTR.
At five residential schools across the Vancouver Island region generally there were 202 documented deaths.
The Penelakut letter did not contain any details about when or how the existence of the unmarked graves was confirmed.
It did not say whether ground-penetrating radar was used, but the wording of the letter indicates the burial site is linked to the residential school.
“We are at another point in time where we must face the trauma because of these acts of genocide,” said the letter.
“Each time we do, it is possible to heal a little more. Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is acting in spite of fear.”
The letter said healing sessions are planned for July and August.
A National Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students. This 24-Hour Crisis Line can be accessed at: 1-866-925-4419