Please note: This article contains reference to people who have died.
More than 180 unmarked graves have been found on the grounds of the former St Eugene’s Mission School near Cranbrook, British Columbia.
ʔaq̓am, one of the four bands in the Ktunaxa Nation, used ground-penetrating radar on the site of the former residential school to uncover the 182 unmarked graves on Wednesday.
ʔaq̓am band issued a statement saying searching began last year in the ʔaq̓am cemetery, which is adjacent to the former residential school.
According to ʔaq̓am, the 182 graves found in the cemetery were shallow, no more than a metre in depth. The community are working to identify if the graves are those of children forced to attend St Eugene’s Mission School — a complex task due to the history of the area.
“ʔaq̓am Leadership would like to stress that although these findings are tragic, they are still undergoing analysis and the history of this area is a complex one,” the band statement said.
The cemetery was established in 1865 for settlers in the region and almost a decade later the St Eugene Hospital was built. Many of the graves in the cemetery are those who passed away in hospital.
In 1899 the hospital was burnt down and rebuilt elsewhere.
“The community of ʔaq̓am did not start to bury their Ancestors in the cemetery until the late 1800s. The St Eugene Residential School, adjacent to the cemetery site, was in operation from 1912 to 1970 and was attended by hundreds of Ktunaxa children as well as children from neighbouring nations and communities,” said ʔaq̓am band in their statement.
The institution was operated by the Catholic Church and since its closure in 1970, it has been converted into a golf resort and casino owned by the Ktunaxa Nation.
“You can never fully prepare for something like this,” Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, told CBC News.
The Lower Kootenay Band says up to 100 of its members were forced to attend the residential school.
“It is believed that the remains of these 182 souls are from the member bands of the Ktunaxa Nation, neighbouring First Nations communities and the community of ʔaq̓am,” the Ktunaxa Nation said in a statement.
The news of the 182 graves follows a string of findings across BC, including the graves of 215 children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, 104 found at the former Brandon Indian Residential School and over 750 found at the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
“It’s very difficult,” Chief Louie told CBC News.
“It was very impactful when we got the news of the 215 souls that were located in Kamloops. And now it’s very, very personal.”
He is calling for the Catholic Church to be held legally accountable for their role in the institution.
“We were robbed of future elders … Those children, if they had not passed away, could have been elders and teachers in our communities, the keepers of knowledge. It’s devastating,” he said.
Former Vice-President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Bob Chamberlin told CBC News there will be increased need for mental health services and support as more discoveries come forward.
“This is not something that you casually set aside and carry on with your days,” he said.
“It’s something that’s heavy on the hearts of First Nations people and stays in the mind as we go through our days. There are many people that are going to be struggling to a great degree.”
By Rachael Knowles