The Penelakut Tribe reports the confirmation of more than 160 “undocumented and unmarked graves” on its lands in the Southern Gulf Islands adjacent to Chemainus, British Columbia.
Penelakut has four reserves located across the islands, which are just east of Vancouver Island. One of them, Penelakut Island, was formerly known as Kuper Island and home to the Kuper Island Indian Residential School.
Penelakut notified its neighboring communities of the confirmation in a letter dated July 8, which was posted online by the Cowichan Tribes on Monday.
“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighboring communities attended the Kuper Island Industrial School,” said Chief Joan Brown, council and Elders in the letter.
“We also recognize with a tremendous amount of grief and loss, that too many did not return home. It is impossible to get over acts of genocide and human rights violations.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his “heart breaks” after the discovery of more unmarked graves.
“I recognize these findings only deepen the pain that families, survivors and all Indigenous peoples and communities are already feeling as they reaffirm truth that they have long known,” Trudeau said during a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa.
“To members of the Penelakut Tribe we are here for you. We cannot bring back those who are lost but we can and will continue to tell the truth,” Trudeau said.
Close to 1,000 unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan over the last several months.
The Kuper Island institution ran for 85 years between 1890 and 1975. The pupils set it on fire in 1896 when holidays were cancelled.
A survey taken that year showed that 107 of 264 former students had died, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
The institution’s principal described the structure’s dilapidated condition as “insanitary” and “ruinous” in 1908.
The Catholic Church operated the school until it was taken over by the federal government under prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1969.
In 1995 a former employee at the school pled guilty to three charges of indecent assault and gross indecency, according to the NCTR.
At five residential schools across the Vancouver Island region generally there were 202 documented deaths.
The Penelakut letter did not contain any details about when or how the existence of the unmarked graves was confirmed.
It did not say whether ground-penetrating radar was used, but the wording of the letter indicates the burial site is linked to the residential school.
“We are at another point in time where we must face the trauma because of these acts of genocide,” said the letter.
“Each time we do, it is possible to heal a little more. Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is acting in spite of fear.”
The letter said healing sessions are planned for July and August.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools, the majority of them run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, in a campaign to assimilate them into Canadian society.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.
Two New Democratic Party Members of Parliament have demanded the federal government investigate allegations of “crimes against humanity” in residential schools.
A National Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students. This 24-Hour Crisis Line can be accessed at: 1-866-925-4419
The Associated Press contributed to this report.