This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to readers.
Following the confirmation of 160 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kuper Island Residential School, survivors and community leaders are calling for action and accountability.
Steve Sxwithul’txw is a member of Penelakut Tribe, an acclaimed filmmaker and a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School. He says it’s time for the federal government to step up to support survivors and hold individuals accountable for their roles in the residential school system.
“I appreciate Justin Trudeau dropping off teddy bears, but that’s not going to get us answers. We need somebody to take responsibility. We need people who crossed the lines and committed crimes to be accountable,” he said.
After 215 unmarked graves were discovered at the former residential school in Kamloops, Sxwithul’txw put together a GoFundMe with his partner Michele Mundy and Tom LaFortune to raise funds for Vancouver Island First Nations to search former residential school sites on their territory. That fundraiser had an initial goal of $25,000 but raised $151,000.
“This GoFundMe initiative is not associated in any way shape or form with Penelakut,” Sxwithul’txw said. “They had apparently done this work some time ago before COVID and decided to announce it right now because of all the pain that’s out there with communities of other nations finding their lost loved ones.”
Sxwithul’txw said that he’s been in talks with Vancouver Island First Nations to allocate funds toward efforts to search former residential school properties. That work will be led by the individual Nations involved.
Despite the effort, Sxwithul’txw says that Indigenous people shouldn’t have to fund these efforts in the first place.
“I think it’s important that the government fund this. In no way shape or form that First Nations should be funding this. In no way shape or form should a residential school survivor be fundraising to find bodies.”
The federal government did commit $27 million toward identifying and investigating unmarked burial sites in 2019. The province of B.C. has also committed to providing $12 million to support that work. Sxwithul’txw says that while he appreciates the announcements, First Nations have to go wade through long bureaucratic processes to receive funding.
What Sxwithul’txw wants to see most is accountability.
“The work is going to continue for the next number of years — the unearthing of our lost children. We can keep unearthing them, but at the same time, what is going to happen? Who is going to be accountable? Is the Government of Canada going to take responsibility? They’re culpable. Same with the churches. So what’s going to be the process? I’m asking non-Indigenous Canadians to apply for answers. Write to your MP to get answers and move forward with investigations,” he said.
Stz’uminus First Nation Chief Roxanne Harris said the news out of Penelakut hits close to home. Her father, her uncles and her aunts were all forced to attend Kuper Island Residential School.
“It was sad to hear that news, but it wasn’t surprising. We knew that there were deaths because of all the atrocities we’ve heard about — the stories we’ve heard from survivors who came home. They’ve been trying to tell their stories, but it feels like a lot of what they’ve said — up until now — has fallen on deaf ears. Now there are people willing to listen,” she said.
Harris is encouraged to see more people willing to listen to residential school survivors and take action to address the legacy of the institutions. Harris said that her community is grieving with Penelakut and the multiple other First Nations who are impacted by the Kuper Island Residential School.
But healing won’t come easily. For survivors, the news has re-opened old wounds and brought trauma back to the surface.
“So many of our Elders are having the nightmares of what happened to them,” Harris said. “They’re working through it, we’re trying to work through it with them.”
Harris said that Stz’uminus is working to offer sessions on grief and loss. She agrees with Sxwithul’txw that residential school survivors need more support.
“There’s a lot of work we have to do on this healing journey and make sure we don’t leave anybody behind.”
“We probably need to ask the Government for more funding for programs we can run. At some point we’ll have to make that ask. I think that’s going to be a call across Canada from all First Nations communities… The trauma is here, it’s upon us. We have to figure out what our next steps are to get to that place of healing, moving forward in a good way and uplifting our communities again.”
Harris said that she wants all Canadians to move forward as one on that healing journey.
“The history isn’t nice, it’s not pretty. But we need to recognize that it happened here,” she said. “We need to be less them and us. I think we’re stronger together… There’s a lot more similar about us than not.
Residential school survivors who need support can call the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.