WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A First Nation on Vancouver Island has released the preliminary results of a scan of the former site of the Alberni Indian Residential School, which it says has revealed 17 potential unmarked graves.
The Tseshaht First Nation also says its historical research found records showing 67 students died over the seven decades the school was open.
The nation made the announcement Tuesday in a community gym that was once part of the residential school complex on Tseshaht land near Port Alberni, B.C.
At a ceremony before the announcement, Tseshaht women carried blankets between them, filled with teddy bears wearing orange shirts. Sixty-seven of the bears were placed on a platform, and 17 were placed on the floor, all on blankets.
While only 10 per cent of the area has been scanned so far using ground-penetrating radar and other tools, elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) says the nation will now begin to contact the family of deceased children who were found through historical research.
While in some cases, the records show only partial names, others show full names, nations, and causes of death.
Watts asked everyone in the gym and everyone watching a livestream of the announcement to remember that these were just children.
“For survivors, this is the truth they’ve been sharing from the beginning,” said Watts.
We as Nuu-chah-nulth hold out our arms and embrace those children who didn’t go home. We
embrace their families, communities and Nations.
The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council issued a statement Tuesday night condemning the deaths of children and a situation where families were not able to learn what had happened to them.
“We as Nuu-chah-nulth, hold out our arms and embrace those children who didn’t go home. We embrace their families, communities and Nations, wrote president Judith Sayers.
“We want these children to now be at peace knowing that we have found them, and they can go home knowing they did nothing wrong.”
The ground searchers gave priority to survivors’ accounts when deciding where to search.
Sheri Meding, a Métis woman who led the research on behalf of the nation, says the accounts she heard from survivors provided a “different truth” than the version she’s learned reading government documents.
WATCH | A synopsis of the day’s events and an interview with a survivor:
She says survivors spoke of witnessing forced abortions, finding skulls and other human remains on the school grounds as children, seeing small coffins being taken out at night, and seeing students being killed, among other things.
“The survivors told us where to look, and they were correct,” he said, adding some even drew maps.
The nation is calling on the federal government to provide funding to complete ground searches, as well as to support survivors and build memorials.
Investigations are critical, says survivor
Randy Fred, who survived nine years at the Alberni Indian Residential School starting from when he was five years old, said it’s critical for investigations into unmarked graves to happen.
“The process leading up to where we are today is something that’s really got to be continued because people want closure,” he told CBC News on Monday.
In 1988, Fred shared his story publicly in Celia Haig-Brown’s Resistance and Renewal, one of the first texts to detail the experiences of residential school survivors.
He was also among survivors who told their stories to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1995 as part of the Blackwater vs. Plint case, which saw Alberni Indian Residential School dormitory supervisor Arthur Henry Plint convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison twice for the decades of sexual abuse he committed against children at the school.
Fred, now in his 70s, continues to tell his story to ensure the atrocities of residential schools are not forgotten.
“We lost so much in that school. We were deprived of our family. We were deprived of love,” he said.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.