After Kamloops, the search for Vancouver Island graves takes on new intensity. Why did it take so long?

An Indigenous-led fundraiser has raised more than five times its goal to help First Nations find answers and healing

By Jolene Rudisuela
June 10, 2021

After Kamloops, the search for Vancouver Island graves takes on new intensity. Why did it take so long?

An Indigenous-led fundraiser has raised more than five times its goal to help First Nations find answers and healing

A girl pays tribute on May 31 to the 215 children whose unmarked graves were found at a Kamloops residential school. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily
A girl pays tribute on May 31 to the 215 children whose unmarked graves were found at a Kamloops residential school. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily

After Kamloops, the search for Vancouver Island graves takes on new intensity. Why did it take so long?

An Indigenous-led fundraiser has raised more than five times its goal to help First Nations find answers and healing

By Jolene Rudisuela
June 10, 2021
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After Kamloops, the search for Vancouver Island graves takes on new intensity. Why did it take so long?
A girl pays tribute on May 31 to the 215 children whose unmarked graves were found at a Kamloops residential school. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily

Pain. Anger. Dismay.

As the news of the remains of 215 children found buried in the ground at the Kamloops Indian Residential School broke across the country, Steve Sxwithul'txw felt so much grief. And then anger. And then helplessness. 

Sxwithul'txw, a member of the Penelakut Tribe, was sent to a residential school in 1970 when he was five years old. His mother, aunts, and uncles were also forced to attend. So, it was not a surprise to him that a grave site was found. 

But the reality weighed heavily on his heart, while the lack of government action played on his mind.

While talking with carver Tom LaFortune about how the news had been affecting them and their families, the pair decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. A week ago, Sxwithul'txw, LaFortune, and Michele Mundy started a GoFundMe to raise money to purchase a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) unit—the same technology that was used to find the grave site in Kamloops—to begin searching more residential school properties. 

“This colonial system has caused irreparable harm through generations of legislation... And, you know, the suffering just continues,” he said. “So, if the government’s not going to do anything about it, well, then we’re going to do something.”

The original goal of the fundraiser was to raise enough to purchase one $25,000 unit. A week later, the fundraiser has at the time of editing raised more than $136,000—enough to buy multiple radar units and additional resources to share amongst First Nations. It will allow the First Nations to bypass the need for the federal government to investigate the graves—something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been urging the government to do since 2015.

“We’re done with the conversations. I’m sorry, but we need to get answers,” Sxwithul'txw said. “And we need to find out where our children are.”

Members of Vancouver Island First Nations march through the Inner Harbour on June 8 in memory of the children whose graves were found in Kamloops. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily

Where to start looking

More than 4,100 children are confirmed to have died at residential schools, but in 2015 it was estimated that there could be another 2,000 undocumented deaths. Canadians should be prepared for discoveries of more sites like the one in Kamloops, former senator Murray Sinclair said in a statement last week. 

This is not the first discovery of unmarked graves in Canada, but it is the largest. Across the country, GPR has been used on various sites for several years to locate the remains of children at residential schools. In 2018, researchers working with the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan determined at least 35 unmarked graves exist at the former residential school. The project was paused to wait for additional government funding. 

In the past week, a growing number of nations across the country have announced plans or have started their own searches.

A ground-penetrating radar unit consists of an antenna, control unit, and a survey wheel to measure distance. Photo: Peter Takacs

“We value our people who have passed on in so many different ways,” Sxwithul'txw said. “Their journey is incomplete until we have them in their final resting places, within or near their families.”

Ken Watts, elected chief councillor of the Tseshaht First Nation, says the community has been wanting to search the grounds around the Alberni Indian Residential School for years. 

As is too common across the country, there are many stories of the atrocities that happened at this school and the children who died. But Watts is hesitant to move too quickly on the search, saying that proper supports need to be in place to help people cope with the process and the potential retraumatization.

“First and foremost, I think [this process is] to honour our survivors and those that never made it home,” he said. “But I always tell people, it’s a lot bigger than you and I, this work that we’re talking about. It’s very heavy for a lot of people. So, there’s emotional and mental supports that are required.

“I never asked for the school, and I wasn’t a part of it. But as the elected chief of my community, I feel the responsibility to make sure those survivors get those answers.”

Ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, has been used for decades, largely in archaeology and for maintaining infrastructure. The units consist of an antenna contained within a box, a control unit, and a survey wheel to measure distance. This is all often attached to a frame with wheels, similar in size to a lawn mower. The unit is rolled across the ground to conduct searches. GPR uses electromagnetic waves transmitted down two to four metres into the soil to detect variations beneath the surface. When those waves hit variations within the soil, some of the energy will bounce back up, giving technicians an idea of what is below or where the ground has been disturbed.

However, the data that can be obtained from GPR is not very specific, explains Peter Takacs, senior GPR technician with GeoScan. GPR does not produce an exact image of what may be under the soil, but coupled with Indigenous and archaeological knowledge, it can give important clues. For example, when soil has been moved by digging, the difference in composition and density of the ground would be picked up by GPR. 

A profile view of ground-penetrating radar data. Each hyperbola-shaped anomaly is a suspected grave site. The horizontal axis shows distance and the vertical axis represents depth in metres. Courtesy of Peter Takacs.

But first, the GPR technician needs to know where to start looking. 

“This is not a one-party solution,” Takacs said. “You need archeologists, you need First Nation Elders, you need community members to have all the information needed to focus, for example, even just one area where the survey can be done.”

At the Alberni Indian Residential School, the deaths of 30 children were recorded officially throughout the years it was operating, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. But those who attended the school know there were more children who never made it home. 

Watts said he has heard of potential locations to search from survivors, but more research will need to be done. It’s not something that will happen overnight.

“As I’ve said before, it’s gonna take a long time to do this work. But even more, it’s going to take even longer for our people to heal from what happened” he said. “I find it shocking if anybody still thinks we should just get over it. It’s clear, there’s kids that never made it home.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan when it comes to searching school sites. Each nation will have different protocols and ways they want to go about it, and for Tseshaht, the first priority will be ensuring that community members have access to the support they need as the truth is uncovered. 

The community has already taken steps to heal from the school that was imposed on the nation’s territory. In September 2019, the Tseshaht First Nation held a two-day healing ceremony at the school. Hundreds came from across BC, many of whom were survivors of the school, to honour the young lives that were lost at the school and to set their souls free. A sculpture by artist Connie Watts was also erected on the site, to commemorate those who were forced to attend the school.

Now, the nation is in talks with the government to tear down the school complex and build a health and wellness centre in its place. 

“We shouldn’t have to pay one dollar to tear down a building that was forced upon our community,” Watts said. “And we also shouldn’t have to pay to help our people heal from what happened there.”

Calls to Action

Six years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created 94 calls to action, each of which are a reflection of what the TRC determined needs to change with Canadian society. In combination, their aim is to make sure the terrible atrocities of the residential schools never happen again while ensuring that Indigenous rights are properly respected and upheld. 

According to the website Indigenous Watchdog, only eight of the 94 calls to action have been completed. None of the items regarding missing children and burial information (actions 74 to 76) have been completed. 

Ry Moran, associate librarian for reconciliation at UVic, says that for the past six years, the government has been delaying making moves on these items because it says communities weren’t ready or weren’t able to do the work. But this narrative from the government should really be treated with suspicion, Moran said. 

“I think the TRC set out a path six years ago that could have and should have been followed,” Moran said. “In fact, there’s many communities that have been trying to obtain the funds and to get the supports necessary for a very long period of time… The idea that communities weren’t ready is just a fallacy, and certainly the government could have and should have moved much more quickly, and, in fact, promised to move much more quickly, right at the release of the TRC final reports in Ottawa.”

It wasn’t until the 2019/20 budget that $27 million was set aside to establish registries for deaths, burials, and cemeteries, as well as supporting Indigenous communities in finding these burial sites and helping communities who wish to bring remains home. 

This funding came more than 10 years after the TRC asked the government for $1.5 million to identify burial site locations. This money was denied by the Harper government. 

“Even still, it’s only been in the last week that the government has really committed to flowing those funds out to communities,” Moran said. “So, it’s troubling it has actually taken this long to make the serious commitments and the financial commitments necessary to enable the work to occur.”

This inaction on the government’s part is the reason Sxwithul'txw co-started the fundraiser for GPR.

The glacial pace at which Canada is addressing the Calls to Action is largely preventing accountability and transparency from the federal government, Moran says, which is vitally important. The TRC has called for annual reports from the National Council for Reconciliation on the status of reconciliation in the country, which has not yet been done.

“One of the questions I get asked the most is, how are we doing? Are we succeeding or not in this very important reconfiguring of the relationship? And we have to recognize that we have not yet successfully implemented the mechanism to answer that question effectively.”

From a legal standpoint, there is actually no legal obligation for the federal government to carry any of the calls to action out, said Alan Hanna, associate professor in the faculty of law at UVic. But there is certainly a moral obligation. 

“There’s plenty of opportunity for the federal government to just do the right thing,” he said. “And I think the more it’s something like this in the public eye, particularly, national, regionally, and even more so on the international stage, it might give some, and I hate to say it this way, but a little more incentive to just do the right thing.”

The aspect of accountability has been on Watts’ and Sxwithul'txw minds since the news came out of Kamloops. 

For Watts, he would have appreciated something as simple as a phone call from the federal government, offering any kind of support or accountability to the people within a nation where a residential school was built. After the news of the unmarked graves in Kamloops broke, Watts said he received a call from the First Nations Health Authority offering help, but so far, there has been nothing from either level of government.

As a residential school survivor, Sxwithul'txw has struggled with the question of “why?” for his entire life—why was he taken from his family? Why did this happen? Why hasn’t the government taken more responsibility? 

As a parent, Sxwithul'txw knows he has to tell his daughter about residential schools. He’ll do it slowly over a period of time, tell her about his own experiences, and, when she asks the same questions he has grappled with, he’ll try to help her make sense of it all. 

“Here we are, a generation later, still asking those questions. I wish I could answer them clearly for her, but the process was forced on us. And I’m still trying to figure it all out,” he said.

In the meantime, he hopes his fundraiser can help bring some peace, healing, and answers to Indigenous people across Vancouver Island, BC, and Canada.

“The story is not going away and I don’t think it will for some time until we commit to focusing on bringing back all of our children from each of these sites, 139 sites across Canada,” he said. “This needs to be done. And if others aren’t willing to do it, well, this grassroots movement is willing to make that happen.”

Correction at 9:20 am on June 10: An earlier version of this story said a "mass grave" had been discovered in Kamloops. It was a group of unmarked burials.

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