TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. that may be disturbing to readers.
In the wake of the discovery of an unmarked gravesite at a former residential school site in Kamloops, Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni is asking for a healing centre to be built on their former residential school site.
On June 1, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns brought forward a request to the House of Commons from Tseshaht First Nation. The nation is asking for resources from the federal government to remove the remaining buildings that belonged to the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS) and replace them with a healing centre for survivors.
“If the government and the churches can build these horrible places, they can build healing places to take their spots,” said Johns. “[Tseshaht] made it very clear that they need action, not more words. They don’t want to be known as the place that had a residential school that caused harm. They want a place where they can reclaim their power.”
A GoFundMe campaign was recently started by three Vancouver Island Indigenous leaders to search Vancouver Island’s five residential schools with the same technology used to discover the mass grave site in Kamloops. The campaign raised more than $77,000 in two days.
Ken Watts, elected chief councillor for Tseshaht First Nation, wants to see the AIRS site searched with ground-penetrating radar, but he also wants to see more research into church, RCMP and government records about the residential school.
Setting up supports for survivors, he added, is equally important.
“It was placed in our backyard,” said Watts. “We never consented to it being there and the atrocities that were committed there. We need to do some research, and we shouldn’t have to pay a dollar out of our own pockets for that research.”
The Peake Hall student dormitory at AIRS was demolished in 2009, but there are still several buildings standing on the Tseshaht reserve that were part of the residential school system. One building still stands that used to host classes. Tseshaht has been in conversations with the federal government for years about the deconstruction of that building.
“But we need that solid commitment from the government,” said Watts.
Watts says that Tseshaht wants the old AIRS buildings to be replaced by a health and wellness multiplex, including a new gymnasium. Maht Mahs gym was also part of AIRS, but this has now become a community “hub” for Tseshaht First Nation and other Nuu-chah-nulth people in Port Alberni.
“But our goal has always been to build something new,” said Watts. “We want people to look at Tseshaht as a place that supported them, not a place that caused harm. The impacts of that place went far beyond our community. We want to turn around the story and create a positive space.”
Nuu-chah-nulth artist Connie Watts was commissioned to create a piece of memorial artwork that was installed in 2014 at the site of the former residential school.
Ken Watts acknowledged the work of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation for bringing this conversation to light.
“This has opened up a lot of wounds,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about the survivors–they’ve been on my mind so much this past week.”
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 30 students are confirmed to have died at AIRS, but Canada has never done a full accounting of how many children died at residential schools across the country. The commission notes that records were destroyed, went missing and that the deaths of many children simply went unrecorded.
“We want to make sure they’re honoured and get a proper journey home,” said Watts.
The B.C. Society of Residential School Survivors is offering toll-free telephone support for survivors at 1-800-721-0066. The 24-hour crisis line number is 1-866-925-4419. Kuu-us Crisis Line (adults): 250-723-4050; (youth) 250-723-2040 or 1-800-588-8717.