WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the US. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419. If you're in Treaty 4 territory, call 306-522-7494.

Kathleen Martens
APTN National News

Another First Nation is reporting the discovery of unmarked graves near the site of a former residential school, St. Eugene’s Mission School.

It follows two other reports of similar massive findings at two other such church-run schools, one of more than 600 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School and another of 215 bodies at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The community of ʔaq’am, also known as St. Mary’s band, situated within the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation near Cranbrook, British Columbia, located 182 unmarked graves in 2020 using ground penetrating radar. It is close to the former St. Eugene’s Mission School, which was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s.

But it only recently notified the nearby Lower Kootenay First Nation about the find.

Cranbrook is 524 miles east of Vancouver

“In the ground search conducted by the community of ʔaq’am, the findings revealed 182 human remains in unmarked graves,” said a news release from Lower Kootenay shared with APTN News Wednesday. Some unmarked graves were about 3 feet deep, it said.

“It is believed that the remains of these 182 souls are from the member Bands of the Ktunaxa nation, neighbouring First Nations communities, & the community of aqam.”

Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band, which is also a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, called the discovery “deeply personal” since he had relatives attend the school.

“Let’s call this for what it is,” Louie told CBC radio in an interview. “It’s a mass murder of Indigenous people."

“The Nazis were held accountable for their war crimes. I see no difference in locating the priests and nuns and the brothers who are responsible for this mass murder to be held accountable for their part in this attempt of genocide of an Indigenous people.”

(Related: 751 unmarked graves is ‘a wake up call’)

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Thousands of children died there of disease and other causes, with many never returned to their families.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which today is the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

The Canadian government has acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.

On Tuesday, it was announced that a group of Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican later this year to press for a papal apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Indigenous leaders will visit the Vatican between Dec. 17 and 20 to meet with Pope Francis and “foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”

Prior to news of the most recent finding, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he has asked that the national flag on the Peace Tower remain at half-mast for Canada Day on Thursday to honor the Indigenous children who died in residential schools.

Living survivors

Lower Kootenay said it still has living survivors of approximately 100 band citizens forced to attend St. Eugene’s Mission School as part of the federal government’s residential school system.

It said the institution was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s.

“The residential school system was mandated by the government of Canada,” Lower Kootenay added in the release.

“All Indigenous children ages 7-15 were required by law to attend residential school where many Indigenous children received cruel & sometimes fatal treatment.”

More details about St. Eugene’s or Kootenay residential school are located on the website of the Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre. It said the building opened in 1890 just north of Cranbrook, before being replaced with an industrial school in 1912.

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Influenza

It said there were recurring outbreaks of influenza, mumps, measles, chicken pox, and tuberculosis. In 1969, the federal government took over the operation of the residence and closed it the following year.

The building was converted into an upscale resort, along with a hotel and golf course, by the St. Mary’s band after a referendum was held in favour of restoration. There is also an RV park and interpretive centre that explains the sad history of the former school.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, an estimated 5,000 children passed through its hallways from the communities of St. Mary’s, Lower Kootenay, Tobacco Plains, Lower Similkameen, Similkameen, Okanagan, Inkamoop / Inkammoep / Inkameep, Termission, Creston, Vernon, Enderby, Comox, Little Shuswap, Upper Nicola, Spallumchene / Spallumcheon / Sallumchene, North Thompson, Lake Similk, Neskainlith, Tsartlip, Osoyoos, Penticton, Columbia Lake, Shuswap, Tsartlip, Westbank, Athelmer, Cranbrook, Kamloops, Cardston and Seabird Island.

This is the third First Nation – and the second in B.C. – to report a similar find using ground penetrating radar in the past month.

The first was May 27 by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, which announced 215 graves at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The second was Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan that said on June 23 it had located 715 unmarked graves.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.