Survivors raising funds to scan grounds of Island residential schools for unmarked graves

A group of residential-school survivors is moving ahead with plans to use ground-penetrating radar at five former residential school sites on Vancouver Island, saying they can’t wait for governments to make decisions on funding the search for unmarked graves and possibly more lost children.

An online fundraising campaign was launched Tuesday to raise $25,000 to buy the equipment, while experts offered to help in the wake of the discovery last weekend of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

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The federal government is under mounting pressure to announce funding for the searches, but hasn’t been specific on next steps.

On Tuesday, Premier John Horgan stopped short of committing financial assistance for ground-penetrating radar or other means to explore the grounds of other residential schools in the province.

Asked if B.C. would provide financial help for such a search if the federal government did not, Horgan said only that the province has an obligation to ensure the 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are realized.

Fundraising organizer Steve Sxwithul’twx, a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School, said First Nations are not prepared to wait. The GoFundMe campaign had reached nearly $10,000 by late Tuesday afternoon. “We have to start the search for our lost children,” said Sxwithul’txw. “Who knows how long the process will take [for governments]? It’s a bureaucratic mess.”

Kuper Island Residential and Industrial School was torn down in the 1980s and its concrete sign was dumped into the ocean a few years later as a healing gesture.

Sxwithul’twx remembers the heavy monolith splashing off the dock, the last remnant of a building that for a century brought misery to generations of First Nations.

While the structure is gone, the prospect of what may lie underneath the 10-acre property on Penelakut Island (formerly Kuper Island) and four other school grounds is troubling, said Sxwithul’twx.

In light of the Kamloops discovery, Sxwithul’twx said the goal is to start scanning the grounds at the former Kuper Island Residential School, where there were 107 documented deaths of children, and eventually move to the others — St. Michaels Residential School in Alert Bay, Christie School near Tofino, Alberni Residential School in Port Alberni and Ahousaht Residential School.

“We can’t rely on [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau and the federal government … they can’t seem to make a decision,” Sxwithul’txw said Tuesday.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has records of 202 students who died in those five Island schools over the years, but there are fears the number could be higher.

Sxwithul’txw said the process will follow protocols, guided by elders and working with First Nations youth, and with the help of archeologists and other specialists. “It will take time and resources to make this happen,” he said.

Sxwithul’txw said the fundraising initiative has already generated expressions of interest from archeologists and academics, and there are early discussions with GeoScan, a national geophysical and surveying company with operations in B.C. that has worked with First Nations to locate graves for several years.

Peter Takacs of GeoScan said it isn’t as simple as running a ground-penetrating radar unit — which looks like a large lawnmower that’s pushed or pulled — over the surface while images of bones or skulls appear.

GPR uses energy waves of various frequencies. A transmitter sends signals into the soil and records the echoes from objects underground.

It can detect variations in the soil, caverns and the density of objects. Software is used to produce mapping of any variations.

“You don’t see bones or the remains of a skeleton, but you can see depressions, for example,” Takacs said.

Takacs said determining human remains requires experts from different disciplines working together, such as geophysicists, archaeologists and others.

It is a time-consuming process.

B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee said the Tk’emlups Nation started the process of finding remains at the Kamloops site 20 years ago.

Eric Simons, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, told the Canadian Press the radar used would have identified 215 grave shafts, not actual bodies, as well as changes in the soil, with some of it being more compressed.

Simons said he’s been working with First Nations on Penelakut Island, where children’s remains are believed to have been buried between 1890 and 1975, when the facility was closed.

Much more work is left to be done at the site, he said.

It’s hard to say what next steps will be taken to try and identify remains at the former residential school in Kamloops, Simons said, adding each First Nation would decide on how to deal with the burial site, depending on their cultural protocols.

Takacs said scanning a 50-metre-by 50-metre site would take several hours, and analyzing the data would take much more time.

The grounds at all five Island residential schools would comprise more than 50 acres, according to estimates, making local knowledge critical in locating possible burial sites.

“Kamloops has been working on this since 2001, so we want to stress how important it is to get this started right now,” said Sxwithul’txw. “People are so pushed to the brink on this … we hear this happening in Europe in world wars, not in Canada. That’s what has gut-punched a lot of people in this country.”

Horgan said Tuesday he had spoken with Tk’emlups Chief Rosanne Casimir.

“I made it abundantly clear that we stand ready to assist the nation and in fact Indigenous peoples across the province in meeting the challenges of dealing with this horrific discovery,” he said. “This is a reminder to all Canadians that residential school issues were not just a story in our past. It exists today as a profound issue in Indigenous communities for survivors and children of survivors.

“You can’t help but be moved when you hear from a survivor of the impacts of reliving those experiences. It’s not for us to give direction. It’s for us to be there to assist the nations when they ask for it.”

A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

The B.C. KUU-US Crisis Line Society also has 24-hour services available toll-free at 1-800-588-8717. A youth line is also available at 250-723-2040, and an adult line is available at 250-723-4050.

— With files from Andrew Duffy

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