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Tseshaht announce 67 deaths confirmed through research, and 17 possible grave sites, at former Alberni residential school

Survivor stories, archives, and ground technology used in first phase of findings

By Cameron Welch
February 22, 2023
Indigenous
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Tseshaht announce 67 deaths confirmed through research, and 17 possible grave sites, at former Alberni residential school

Survivor stories, archives, and ground technology used in first phase of findings

By Cameron Welch
Feb 22, 2023
Alberni Residential School, depicted on a postcard circa 1940s. Source: Flickr commons
Alberni Residential School, depicted on a postcard circa 1940s. Source: Flickr commons
Indigenous
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Tseshaht announce 67 deaths confirmed through research, and 17 possible grave sites, at former Alberni residential school

Survivor stories, archives, and ground technology used in first phase of findings

By Cameron Welch
February 22, 2023
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Tseshaht announce 67 deaths confirmed through research, and 17 possible grave sites, at former Alberni residential school
Alberni Residential School, depicted on a postcard circa 1940s. Source: Flickr commons

This story discusses deaths and abuses at residential schools

The c̓išaaʔatḥ (Tseshaht) First Nation delivered an update on the first stage of results of its search of the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) grounds, at a Tuesday event and livestream. Children were taken from their families and brought to the school not only from the Tseshaht, a Nuu-chah-nulth nation with 1,200 current registered members, but also from more than 70 different Indigenous groups across BC.

At the Tuesday event there were 67 teddy bears with orange shirts for the known students, and 17 for the possible burials. Those bears highlighted a fact that elected chief councillor Wahmeesh / Ken Watts emphasized repeatedly in the conference: that those lost at the “school” were just children.

The 67 deaths now confirmed by research are more than double the number previously found for AIRS by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which acknowledged at the time that its findings were very likely undercounts). These 67 were confirmed through extensive research involving archival records and interviews with survivors. Those were two of the four pillars of this ʔuuʔatumin yaqckʷiimitqin (Doing It for Our Ancestors) project’s research, the others being above- and below-ground technology (LiDAR and GPR, along with a half-dozen other technologies).

Stories from survivors helped confirm identities and reveal abuses

In many cases, lead researcher Sheri Meding said during the conference, the records kept by residential schools told “different truths” than survivors did. For instance, some deaths described by multiple survivors as results of deliberate harm by staff, or of self-harm, were listed as “accidents” in the school’s records.

Survivor stories detailed being aware of deaths, forced abortions, and the removal or incineration of bodies; some also spoke of finding human remains on the grounds while still students there. They also spoke about physical and sexual abuse, and evidence of human experimentation such as students taking certain pills or having four similar scars. It was a priority of survivors, Wahmeesh said, to not have the report present a sanitized story of what happened. 

The process prioritized the testimonies of survivors, and their wellbeing throughout, with consent revokable at any time and any data collected remaining under Indigenous control and custody. Meding noted that for some periods there were too few living survivors or intact records for the full story to ever be found. Research was also limited at points by current privacy legislation, she said, and one of the nation’s calls on Tuesday was for the federal government to look at adjusting that legislation. 

131 years since its opening, 50 since its closure

AIRS was established as a day school in 1892, according the the timeline the First Nation compiled and presented. By 1896 it had reported three deaths from disease before being expanded to a boarding school in 1899. Disease outbreaks were reported throughout its time operating. In 1920 Indian Act changes forced all First Nations children aged 7-16 to attend residential schools, and in 1969 the federal government took over management of the formerly Presbyterian and United Church operations. Soon after, in 1973, a delegation of Tseshaht leaders convinced it to shutter AIRS. This year is the 50th anniversary of that victory. 

Many of the horrors that survivors describe became public in the decades after the closure. One 1940s-1960s supervisor, Arthur Plint, was sentenced in 1995 to 11 years for his abuse of children at AIRS, and RCMP opened an investigation into abuses at the school generally. Research into experiments at residential schools was published in the 2000s, and in 2019 Tseshaht held a healing ceremony at the AIRS site.

Conference stressed limits of technology but rigour of process

The possible burials were identified through a combination of memories, archives, aerial photos, and various ground-searching technologies. Those scans have been used so far on about 12% of the total grounds (nearly 100ha) that the nation plans to search. The recollections of survivors often pointed researchers to sites that ground scans also identified as possibilities.

The overall area that could be searched. Images from Tseshaht presentation livestream

Researchers stressed that no survey short of excavation can confirm there are bodies, and that there is “no such thing as a geophysical bone detector.” However, the sites identified include only those that were flagged by multiple technologies and multiple observers independently. Efforts were taken to rule out non-human underground materials such as logs and roots, or “benign excavations” that could be human-caused but not likely to include remains.

The process was more difficult than in conventional grave sites where there is more regularity and most bodies are adults. But the strongest candidates were locations that had at least two and ideally all four of: the right size and shape in top-down scans, and an apparent grave shaft and potential coffin features in cross scans.

The four key factors used to narrow down potential burials

Nation seeks support, and justice, as it continues search

The nation plans to continue searching the grounds, and to send delegations to the other communities from which the 67 students had been taken. It’s calling on the federal government to fund this work of appropriately delivering home the lost children's relevant documents. Other calls for funding include grave-markers and memorials as well as ceremonies, and to fund the tear-down and possible replacement of Caldwell Hall and potentially other structures.

The Calls for Truth and Justice also seek renewed and consented-to independent investigations into crimes committed at AIRS, medical and nutritional experiments conducted, and connections to Indian Hospitals (where sick or injured children were sometimes sent).  Tseshaht requires that independent investigation is not done by the RCMP, because the RCMP removed children to bring them to AIRS. Tseshaht also seeks examination of RCMP’s role in those removals. 

The First Nation also asks that previous settlements and apologies (such as those by the government, church, and RCMP) be reviewed in light of more recent findings. It also hopes to see a "Truth for Youth" program educating K-12 children about those who did not make it home from residential schools, and training of First Nation members in ground-search technology so they can conduct all aspects of their searches themselves.

Above all, Wahmeesh stressed gratitude to survivors for sharing their information and for carrying their culture and language through AIRS. Because they were often forbidden from expressing love at AIRS, he said, it was important to tell them they are loved. After the speakers and ceremony, the longhouse was made available all night and all this week as a space for survivors.

Other Island First Nations are also in the process of analyzing the grounds and stories of the other Island residential schools, assisted in part by funding gathered in 2020 by Victoria-based Indigenous leaders.

​Supports available include the Indian Residential School Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society​. 

Other supports listed in the presentation

Story updated as of 7am on Feb. 22 with additional details and images from the presentation.

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Cameron Welch
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