Infusing culture and history into the search for unmarked graves

Members of the Tseshaht First Nation gather before a ceremony in a community gym on Tuesday prior to announcing preliminary results of a search for unmarked graves at the Alberni Indian Residential School. (Claire Palmer/CBC  - image credit)
Members of the Tseshaht First Nation gather before a ceremony in a community gym on Tuesday prior to announcing preliminary results of a search for unmarked graves at the Alberni Indian Residential School. (Claire Palmer/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The elected chief councillor of the Tseshaht First Nation says the nation worked hard to make sure that its search, and the announcement of its preliminary findings, were done in a way that made sense for their community.

Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) says that meant not just looking for where graves might be but speaking to survivors and doing historical research to try to find out how many children died while they were students at the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS).

Community members walked into the gymnasium at Tuesday's event before sharing their findings with the public, singing their most honoured prayer song. Some women carried blankets between them, and when they got to the front, they spread out the blankets to reveal dozens of orange-shirted teddy bears inside.

There were 67 bears to represent the children that records show died and 17 to represent the number of suspected unmarked graves searchers have found so far.

Children from over 70 First Nations in B.C. were forced to attend the institution, which operated for over 70 years.

CBC reporter Kathryn Marlow spoke to elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) after the event.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

One of the things you mentioned today is not wanting this just to be another number that people brush aside. As you correctly pointed out, we get these stories now, and they can start to just kind of pile up. What do you want people to remember out of this one? 

Yeah, so that's why we were very, I think, unique in the way we presented our information today. A lot of nations have just shared their scanning results or been briefed on their research. For us, we wanted to be just as strong in terms of presenting on what the research has found.

We came up to 67. We hope that number, and the way we visualized it today [Tuesday] with those bears, meant something — that it resonated with people that they were just children at the end of the day.

Claire Palmer/CBC
Claire Palmer/CBC

We need to remember that there are 67 children who passed away while students of the residential school, some of them went home to pass away and die, some of them didn't. And how they were buried in various places across the province, whether it's back home in their community or here. And now it's our job to deliver that news to those families and those records that we now have.

So yeah, we wanted to differentiate the two numbers so that it's very clear, but also make sure that people know how important the research was just as much as the scanning of the 17, at minimum, unmarked graves that we know through our scanning are potentially there.

But I remind myself we're just starting a much longer process, that it's gonna take time.

Part of that process is taking the stories of those children home. It's also doing more searches here. What else are you doing? What else is on your to-do list now?

Yeah. So as we presented today, one of the next steps is really with our community. I think, you know, it was a lot about survivors today, but I also have a community that I'm accountable to, and they need to debrief. They need some space and time to talk about what happened today and about what next, what are the next steps to, you know, we want to celebrate that 50 years ago this year that the AIRS [Alberni Indian Residential School] was shut down.

There's other work, like I said, delivering those records. There's about providing space for nations to come here and do their work. That was really important to us. We want to make sure nations can feel comfortable coming here cause they haven't.

There's a lot of communities, and there's actually a lot of survivors who won't come to Port Alberni. They won't come to our community. And we're trying to change that narrative.

The other future work is tearing down Caldwell Hall, one of the last remaining buildings there. So we have a list of, you know, action items and things that we want to do based on the results from the scanning and the research and the delivery of the records to those families. No matter where they live and how they want to receive it, we'll work with them on that.

Tseshaht map


But also the identification of those unmarked graves and making sure we do that in a cultural way that respects our ways of doing things. So they're not, you know, just, you know, just left to be the way they are that we do it in a cultural way.

But also, you heard a lot of the calls to truth and justice and a lot calling Canada and the churches to account a lot on resourcing. You heard a lot, a lot of investigative work that's needed. A survivor said it just as I was leaving, coming down here, that they said that we hear all the time, there's no such thing as reconciliation without the truth. And so we did that today. We verified, and we shared the truth with everybody.

One of the things that came up today was about decolonizing the process and Indigenizing the process. And you know, we hear that word decolonizing more and more. What does that mean to you and all of this?

I can close my eyes and remember being on a call with survivors on Zoom, and I can remember survivors sharing, "Make sure you do this your way, in a Tseshaht way and in a Nuu-chah-nulth way, that reflects who we are first."

And they were the ones that guided this work from the very beginning. And that was one of the biggest things, as they said.

"Do this in a cultural way, you know, if you need to brush people off [with cedar boughs], people being interviewed, or the equipment even, like do it that that's our way. We don't have to do it some other way that you see other nations."

There's no book on how to do this. There's no, "Here's how you look for unmarked graves at schools." So we've had to learn as we go. But every step of the way, we make sure we integrate our culture into every component.

You saw today, for us, it's Tseshaht and indigenizing it and reclaiming it as ours is singing. It's dancing. It's being proud of who we are and where we come from. It's about sharing our language. But even in the interviews, right? And the research that work went on, we took a different approach. Even the scanning, we took a different approach in terms of how those staff came here, and we did it in a cultural way. How we interviewed survivors.

We provide cultural, mental health supports when they have interviews, you know. We gather differently than others when we have national Indigenous Peoples Day or Orange Shirt Day. We come together in a special way as a community. It makes me really proud. I don't know if people could see it in my eyes, but yeah, well, when I see our community step up, it's, yeah, I feel really proud.

Claire Palmer/CBC
Claire Palmer/CBC

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.