On June 30, ?aq?am announced the discovery of 182 unmarked grave sites near the former St. Eugene Mission School. The community of ?aq?am, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, used ground-penetrating radar to perform the search.
In a press release, ?aq?am leadership stressed that although these findings are tragic, they are still undergoing analysis. The history of this area is complex.
The cemetery was established around 1865 for settlers to the region. In 1874, the St. Eugene Hospital was built near the St. Mary River. Many of the graves in the ?aq?am cemetery belong to those who passed away in the regional hospital. The hospital burned down in 1899 and was rebuilt in Cranbrook. The community of ?aq?am 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. Hundreds of Ktunaxa children and children from neighbouring nations and communities attended. Graves were marked with wooden crosses. Wooden crosses can deteriorate over time due to erosion or fire, resulting in an unmarked grave. These factors, among others, make it extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the St. Eugene Residential School.
“The community of ?aq?am remains steadfast in its responsibility as caretakers of the ?aq?am cemetery and to those who eternally rest within.” Further ground penetrating radar work will be done on the site. ?aq?am is committed to working with external parties to identify as many graves as possible and memorialize all unknown graves with stone markers to ensure that no soul is forgotten.
“You can never fully prepare for something like this,” said Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band in a press release. The St. Eugene Mission School was operated by the Catholic Church from 1912 until the early 1970s. The building has since been converted into a resort and casino with an adjacent golf course. ?aq?am says up to 100 of its members were forced to attend the 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 ?aq?am.” The band says it is in the early stages of learning about the report’s findings and will provide more updates.
Last week ?aq?am announced a search at St. Eugene Mission to look for remains buried on the former residential school grounds. This comes after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found using ground-penetrating radar at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“We as the community of ?aq?am stand by our brothers and sisters in Kamloops and across the country, and we will continue to do the work of healing for our communities now and into the future,” said Nasu?kin (Chief) Joe Pierre in a press release.
The news out of Kamloops brought back painful memories for the ?aq?am community. “It has elicited many questions from its citizens and the public regarding potential work in and around the St. Eugene Mission cemetery and ?aq?am community,” ?aq?am officials said.
This wasn’t the first time ?aq?am has searched. ?aq?am conducted ground-penetrating radar on a portion of the cemetery in 2020. The work was undertaken to ensure the future preservation of ancestral remains, a pillar within the ?aq?am community strategic plan.
“We will conduct further work this summer and continue to build a comprehensive record that will shape our community connection and preservation. We ask for privacy and patience as we undertake this important work to honour our ancestors.” The ?aq?am community has completed and will continue to complete this critical work alongside ?aq?am Elders and Knowledge holders.
The Shuswap Indian Band hosted a community vigil and remembrance ceremony at the start of June. The ceremony honoured the 215 children lost at the Kamloops Residential School, survivors and products of residential schools.
The ceremony took place in the field next to the band’s administration office. A much larger crowd than anticipated attended, including elders, residential school survivors, as well as Shuswap staff and members.
The first speaker was Shuswap band member Audrey Eugene. Both of Eugene’s parents are survivors of residential schools. Her mother, Marge, 82, went to the St. Eugene Mission Residential School. Her father, Xavier, 85, went to the St. Mary’s Indian Residential School.
Eugene said her mother and father were unfairly failed from residential school. Her mother, because she didn’t ace the school’s catechism test. Her father, because the priest thought Xavier was cheating when in fact, he was tutoring his fellow students. “It broke my heart when my mother told me she wished it was her that was found buried rather than those children.” A tear fell from her eye as she said this.
“They tried to beat the Indian out of us, but we’re still here,” Eugene said to the crowd. “Those children could’ve been doctors, lawyers, leaders of our community. Instead, all that wisdom was lost.”
On June 24, 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the former Marieval Indian Residential School site in Saskatchewan. Two days later, 751 lights spanned the entirety of the unmarked graves found where many people gathered to honour the remains.
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron said that what happened was a crime against humanity. The findings were just the start in finding unmarked graves in Saskatchewan. The FSIN represents Saskatchewan’s First Nations.
“There will be hundreds more unmarked graves and burial sites located across our First Nations land at the sites of former Indian Residential Schools,” Cameron said.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress due to his or her Residential school experience or those affected by these reports. The 24-hour crisis line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer