Guided by survivors’ memories, the Tseshaht First Nation is uncovering horrific truths about Alberni Indian Residential School.
[Editor’s note: This story discusses deaths of children in Indian residential schools. It may be triggering to some readers.]
HELP IS AVAILABLE
If you need support, call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers round-the-clock support. Call 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.
The Tyee: “Suzie was taken by the RCMP into a police vehicle. Her father reached out as tears ran down his face and he watched as his daughter left to go to Prince Rupert. His daughter got on a boat, not knowing where she was going, not being able to speak to anybody.”
For the past two years, the Tseshaht First Nation on Vancouver Island has been collecting information from survivors, combing through records and surveying the grounds of the former Alberni Indian Residential School. In an update delivered last week, Elected Chief Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) thanked and honoured the residential school survivors who worked with community-based researchers. For so long, the stories of the horrors they experienced as little children had been dismissed, ignored, not believed.
“I want you to look at the survivors that are here,” Wahmeesh told assembled community members, Alberni Indian Residential School survivors and news media. “The reason we got up and we’re able to sing today and we are able to speak our language is because they survived. They’re the ones that are warriors. They made it through all those troubling times even when they weren’t allowed to speak their language, they weren’t allowed to sing or dance. They carried it on.”
The ʔuuʔatumin yaqckʷiimitqin (Doing It for Our Ancestors) project team will continue to work on finding answers and revealing the true history of the Alberni residential school.
The Tseshaht First Nation is just one of several nations who have been doing this work, unearthing the full history of the colonial institutions that tore children from their families, culture and communities for decades and caused long-lasting damage. For 150 years, Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to residential schools. After 1920, Indigenous families were compelled by law to send their children to the institutions.
Residential schools provided substandard education, were overcrowded, did not feed students properly, allowed diseases to spread, and students often suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the schools were a “government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal people so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”
On Feb. 21, Wahmeesh revealed that surveys of the former grounds of the Alberni Indian Residential School using LiDAR and ground-penetrating radar showed 17 possible burial sites. The school was run by the Presbyterian Church, later by the United Church, and then by the Canadian government.
The nation has struggled to determine even the most basic information about deaths at the school. An earlier residential schools settlement agreement acknowledged just two deaths of Alberni Indian Residential School students. Later, 29 names of school students who died were recorded on the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation Memorial. The Tseshaht research team has determined that five of those names should not be on that list “for various reasons, such as [they were] no longer students,” Wahmeesh said. “So that number should be 24.”
But by combing through school records and other historical documents and by interviewing survivors, researchers have determined that many more students died. “It’s through this research we want to share with the world that we can confirm that 67 students passed away,” Wahmeesh said.
The Tseshaht join other First Nations who have announced similar findings, starting with the 2021 announcement of 215 possible burial sites found at Kamloops Indian Residential School. The research is often being carried out by the First Nation where the residential school was located, but their findings affect many other nations across the province whose children were taken to the schools.
Like the Kamloops Indian Residential School and others across the province, Alberni Indian Residential School housed children from other parts of British Columbia. Children from Vancouver Island, the central coast and northern B.C. were all sent to the school, often hundreds of kilometres away from their home communities and families.
Using the story of one survivor, “Suzie,” as an example, Wahmeesh detailed how RCMP officers threatened Suzie’s parents with jail if they did not send her to school. She was just five when she was forced to leave her Gitxsan community in northern B.C. As the Tseshaht’s research continues, Wahmeesh said, the nation will try to connect with as many of the families as possible to share information about their loved ones who did not survive their time at Alberni Indian Residential School.
‘The survivors told us where to look — and they were correct’
Many residential school survivors testified during Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2008 to 2015. But that process still left many questions unanswered, said Sheri Meding, a researcher who has been working with the Tseshaht First Nation. By developing trust with the survivors, working in a trauma-informed way and decolonializing the research process, community-based research projects like the one under way at Tseshaht are uncovering previously untold stories.
“We wanted to answer who these children were who died,” said Meding, noting four questions that were identified by the TRC. “How many of them died? What was the cause of death? Where are they buried? And who were the students who went missing and why?”
Because of the Tseshaht’s project, Meding said the research team can now answer some of those questions for some of the children.
Overwhelmingly, the children were dying due to disease and poor health, Meding said.
“The poor conditions at the school, it’s very well documented, continued on into the 1940s and ’50s,” Meding said. “Many, many students who attended AIRS were sick, were in the infirmary and were either discharged to home and died at home or they were discharged to one of the three Indian hospitals in the province.”
Indian hospitals provided segregated medical care to Indigenous people and were focused primarily on treating tuberculosis. Many of the hospitals were closely tied to residential schools. “Often children would move from residential school to Indian hospital and then back to school,” according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
Meding said that Alberni Indian Residential School survivors were able to provide the locations where researchers would find burials. “The survivors told us where to look — and they were correct,” Meding said. “Some survivors actually drew a map with multiple unmarked grave locations.”
It’s clear from some of the survivors’ testimonies that not all the deaths will be found in the historical record, Meding said. “Many spoke about forced abortions, multiple different burial locations without grave markers, finding skulls and human skeletal remains in and around the residence grounds as AIRS students,” she said.
Survivors spoke about seeing fellow students killed or their bodies removed from the residential school building. While the historical record might refer to a death as an accident, the account survivors gave “was intentional harm by staff, and suicides,” Meding said.
Indigenous students at residential schools across Canada were not given enough to eat, and the food they were given was often very poor quality. But Alberni Indian Residential School was one of several residential schools where that chronic malnourishment had a more sinister cause.
Ian Mosby, a historian of food and Indigenous health, found records showing that Indigenous children were experimented on by the government between 1942 and 1952. Neither adequate milk supplies nor dentistry care were provided to some children. Others were given nutritional supplements and compared with children who did not receive the vitamins and minerals.
At the Alberni Indian Residential School, students “were refused dental care because government employees wanted to see the effect of an improper diet on children’s health, and received eight ounces of milk a day, instead of the recommended 24 ounces,” according to reporting on Mosby’s research in the Victoria Times Colonist in 2015. “Even after researchers found problems, the low milk ration was maintained for two years to provide a baseline.”
In a 2017 article for the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Mosby highlighted how being malnourished as a child can lead to a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and higher risk of heart attacks and stroke. Some of those health risks can be passed down to the children and grandchildren of survivors. Wahmeesh said Alberni school survivors like Suzie remember being part of those biomedical experiments, and Mosby’s research has helped them understand what was happening to them as hungry children.
The 67 deaths the researchers have identified are more than a number, Wahmeesh emphasized. “Those were children. We need to remind the world that those were just children,” he said. “There should never be cemeteries at schools.”
Calls for justice
The Tseshaht First Nation has released a number of calls to action for truth and justice.
A Nation’s Journey into ‘the Darkest Recesses of Human Behaviour’
The Tseshaht say that any further legal investigations into abuse at Alberni Indian Residential School should not be led by the RCMP because of the force’s role in removing the children from their homes to take them to the schools. Instead, those investigations should be done by an independent body consented to by the Tseshaht.
The Tseshaht are also calling for an investigation into the links between residential schools and Indian hospitals and medical records of students. They also want an investigation into the biomedical experiments uncovered by Mosby, which Wahmeesh said have been “swept under the rug” despite the historian’s work.
The Tseshaht are calling for more funding to continue the research work and for First Nations to support residential school survivors with gatherings and memorial events, as well as ongoing mental health support. And they called for funding to tear down and rebuild remnants of the residential school building that are still in place on the Tseshaht reserve, such as the gymnasium where last week’s gathering was held.
Wahmeesh said survivors have reminded him that the point of doing the research is to push for change and for justice. “You can scan and do all the research you want. But there needs to be justice at the end of the day,” Wahmeesh said. “This is our commitment.”