Residential school was 'Canada's Alcatraz': Former student tried to run away repeatedly, but was 'surrounded by water'

·4 min read
Residential school was 'Canada's Alcatraz': Former student tried to run away repeatedly, but was 'surrounded by water'

More unmarked graves have been discovered near the site of a residential school on Southern Gulf Island in British Columbia, and a former student has a warning: there's probably more tragic news to come across the Canada.

"I hope Canadians don’t become too resilient to these announcements because they’re going to be much more frequent," says Steve Sxwithul'txw, a former student of Kuper Island Industrial School, where the remains were found. Sxwithul'txw attended the school when he was five, along with his sisters.

Last week, the Penelakut Tribe posted on social media that more than 160 undocumented and unmarked graves were found on their grounds and foreshore, near the former site of the school.

“We understand that many of our brothers and sisters from our neighbouring communities attended the Kuper Island Industrial School,” the statement read. 

We also recognize with a tremendous amount of grief and loss, that too many did not return home.Penelakut Tribe statement

The tribe announced it will be hosting a march and several healing sessions over the course of the summer.

A representative for the Penelakut Tribe did not respond to an interview request from Yahoo News Canada.

Kuper Island was like 'Canada's Alcatraz'

The Kuper Island Industrial School, located near Chemainus, Vancouver Island, has a harrowing documented history. It was opened and operated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1889 until 1969, when the federal government took over. It was eventually closed it in 1975. A survey taken in 1896, the same year students set fire to the school, showed that 107 of the 264 former students had died. In 1959, two sisters drowned while trying to escape the school, leading some to describe it as “Canada’s Alcatraz”. According to the The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, a former employee pled guilty to three charges of indecent assault and gross indecency in 1995.

For Sxwithul'txw, now a Victoria-based producer and a member of the Penelakut Tribe, he isn't surprised by the recent news, and is still processing feelings of sadness and anger.

Steve Sxwithul'txw is a Victoria-based producer, and was a former student Kuper Island Industrial School.
Steve Sxwithul'txw is a Victoria-based producer, and was a former student Kuper Island Industrial School.

“I want answers and accountability,” he tells Yahoo News Canada. “That’s always in the back of my head as I do my work and take care of my children. I want answers for them.”

Sxwithul'txw says a lot of the memories from his time at the Kuper Island School revolve around the emotions of being alone, as he was segregated from his sisters, who were on the girls side of the property.

It made it really challenging as a family to keep that family unit together. I ran away a few times but I was always found. There was nowhere to hide because it’s an island surrounded by water.Steve Sxwithul'txw, former student of Kuper Island Industrial School

Sxwithul'txw says Canadians and the government have to accept that these kinds of horrifying discoveries are going to be happening for years to come, on a regular basis, as each nation unearths more lost children.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow but it’s our history,” he says. “It’s a reckoning for this country to do an about-face in the treatment of First Nations people."

Sxwithul'txw says while the work to uncover the remains of First Nations children near the sites of former residential schools has been going on since 2002, it all revolves around funding.

The Kuper Island Indian Residential School is seen on Penelakut Island, British Columbia in a June 19, 1941 archive photo. A Canadian policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools amounted to
The Kuper Island Indian Residential School is seen on Penelakut Island, British Columbia in a June 19, 1941 archive photo. A Canadian policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools amounted to "cultural genocide," a six-year investigation into the now-defunct system found on June 2, 2015. The residential school system attempted to eradicate the aboriginal culture and to assimilate aboriginal children into mainstream Canada, said the long-awaited report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. REUTERS/Canada. Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada/e011080322/handout via Reuters

“This isn’t work that a nation is prepared for or is prepared to do, financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually,” he says. “It’s work that takes time to prepare a nation. The ball started rolling with Kamloops, and now the recent announcement from the government to assist with funding, maybe there will be more as we go. There’s over 130 residential schools across Canada and I can guarantee there will be more of these announcements this year and next year.”

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