AFTER YEARS OF SEXUAL and physical abuse at Alberni Indian Residential School, Willie Blackwater was a mess.
“I was a chronic alcoholic and drug addict for many, many years,” said Blackwater, a Gitxsan First Nations hereditary chief, who spent almost 10 years at the notorious school.
Now, after years of healing, Blackwater hopes to help others deal with the devastating information, released last week by Tseshaht First Nation, that researchers have documented 67 children who died while at the school. In addition, surveys using ground-penetrating radar have found 17 potential unmarked graves.
It is not an unexpected discovery, and researchers, who poured over documents and listened to the accounts of survivors, believe the full number of children who died at the school and the number of graves may never be known.
“The number you see is a minimum,” said archaeological geophysics expert Brian Whiting from the company GeoScan, which conducted ground scans in the rough terrain on Tseshaht land outside Port Alberni.
The evidence of graves is indirect, meaning there are geophysical anomalies that could indicate graves, Whiting said. “We don’t see human remains,” he said, explaining that only exhumation could categorically show whether bodies are buried in the area.
Only about 12 hectares of the 100-hectare property have been scanned and Tseshaht First Nation wants the federal government and the United and Presbyterian churches to help pay for continuing research.
Two years ago, 215 possible burial sites were found at Kamloops Indian Residential School and, since then, several other First Nations have undertaken the grim task of trying to uncover the truth about deaths at schools where children were taken after being forcibly removed from their families and communities.
FOR YEARS, survivors have talked about horrors at Alberni Indian Residential School, ranging from rapes and beatings to secretive burials, human bones found in the grounds and fetuses thrown into a furnace, but hearing the stories validated, has been hard, said elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts).
“Some of our community members are struggling, triggered by what we’ve shared. It’s what they have always known, but to hear it, to verify what they have been saying and what survivors have been telling us—they have had a difficult day,” Wahmeesh said in an interview.
At a ceremony rooted in Indigenous culture, Wahmeesh said Tseshaht First Nation is committed to uncovering the truth and survivors did not want the stories sanitized.
Tseshaht First Nation elected chief councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts)
It was tough to talk about topics such as the incinerator, “but survivors made it clear that I shouldn’t hold back and should be truthful about those young women who became pregnant and lost their babies,” he said.
Children at the school not only suffered abuse and neglect, but were also unwitting guinea pigs in medical and nutritional experiments.
In the 1940s and 1950s some children were denied adequate milk or dentistry care. Outcomes of such deprivations were compared to those who had been given care, vitamins and minerals.
The experiments came to light in 2013 when University of Guelph food historian Ian Mosby published a report on the experiments.
The children were already underfed and living in poor conditions and survivors say they continue to suffer from the effects of malnutrition or having teeth removed.
Sheri Meding, lead researcher working with survivors to identify children who died at the school and the likely cause of their deaths, said conditions at the school were inadequate and unhealthy and medical conditions accounted for most of the deaths.
“There were many deaths in the pre-1920s, but the poor conditions at the school continued until the 1940s and 1950s,” she said.
The research was made more difficult because some children were sent to three Indian hospitals in locations such as Nanaimo, Sardis and Prince Rupert and records have been difficult to access, Meding said.
Others were simply sent home to die, so, again, records are almost non-existent.
There are many more horrific stories that could be shared, Wahmeesh said. “But, I wanted Canadians to get a sense of what some of these children have been through,” he said, emphasizing that the victims were children who had been forcibly removed from their homes.
“I want you to think about that. What would happen if children who were five years old were removed from their homes. That’s the reality that our communities have to live with,” Wahmeesh said.
The First Nation wants an investigation, by an independent body approved by Tseshaht, of the RCMP’s role in removing children from their homes and also looking at whether the RCMP ignored reports of abuse or deaths.
“The RCMP should not be investigating themselves…If they were going to do it, it should have been a long time ago when they had reports coming to them about students dying at residential schools and they did nothing about it,” Wahmeesh said.
“I hope people really heard the calls for justice. One of our survivors said that if nothing happens out of this and nobody’s held accountable, then what was the point of doing all the work,” he said.
“We can’t just get over it, because it takes more than one generation to get over 150 years of colonization and abuse of our people,” he said.
WILLIE BLACKWATER was taken from his home in Kispiox and sent to the school in the mid-1960s. When he left the school, he was dislocated from his family and struggled with uncontrollable anger.
It took years before he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, helped by intensive work with a psychiatrist, he slowly came to embrace the concept of trying to forgive. Since then, he has struggled to minimize the impacts on future generations.
Willie Blackwater, a Gitxsan First Nations hereditary chief, spent almost 10 years at Alberni Indian Residential School where he was sexually and physically abused.
“He [the psychiatrist] helped me understand it wasn’t my fault and I can either carry it with me for the rest of my life or accept the fact that it happened and learn how to help others,” said Blackwater, who has developed a grief and loss program for others struggling with the after-effects of residential school.
“One of the key things I have learned is, when you are helping others, you’re actually healing yourself,” said Blackwater, who also has the satisfaction of knowing his decision to speak out sent one of the most infamous offenders to jail.
Blackwater was the chief plaintiff in a historic 1995 court case which saw dormitory supervisor Arthur Henry Plint jailed for 11 years for assaulting 16 Indigenous boys between the ages of six and 13. BC Supreme Court Justice Douglas Hogarth described the residential school system as “institutionalized paedophilia” and branded Plint a sexual terrorist.
It was a victory, but, even though it prompted an RCMP investigation of other BC residential schools, the trial received limited publicity because Plint pleaded guilty.
So, with more than two dozen other former residential school residents, Blackwater launched a civil suit against the United Church and the federal government. The United Church operated the school from 1925 to 1969 when government took over until its closure in 1973.
A Supreme Court of Canada decision that both the church and government were responsible for the abuse of children in their care was a foundation of the $2.9-billion Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and precipitated apologies by the United Church and then-prime minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the government.
Plint remained in jail until he died from cancer in 2003, but, before his death, Blackwater did the unthinkable.
“I needed to go to the penitentiary where Arthur Henry Plint was incarcerated and go there and forgive him in person, so I did that,” he said.
Forgiveness means letting go of the pain and giving it back to where it belongs, Blackwater explained.
“I felt like I was walking on cloud nine afterwards,” he said.
But, for others there are many hurdles before forgiveness becomes a priority.
NORA MARTIN, who attended the school from 1968 to 1973, remains traumatized about some events and, in addition, remembers stories from her parents and grandparents about children who were beaten or died.
“We all experienced the same things. The beatings and the experiments done on us,” Martin said.
But hearing the announcement about the research was, in some ways, cathartic, said Martin who believes more people will now be encouraged to tell their stories.
Nora Martin attended the Alberni Indian Residential School from 1968 to 1973.
“I think a lot of people have been terrified to go back and remember all those things that happened to us. I believe that this will give them the courage to come forward,” she said.
Martin is currently homeless and is in contact with other former residential school students who are dealing with a variety of social issues or addictions.
“There are a lot of people hurting,” said Martin, who wants a revised and updated apology from the federal government and churches.
Rt. Reverend Carmen Lansdowne, United Church of Canada moderator, said in an interview that the church is not turning away from the truth and is taking concrete action.
“We were wrong to participate in this colonial, racist and oppressive system,” said Lansdowne, a member of the Hesquiaht First Nation whose relatives attended residential school. (See the UCC statement here.)
The church should have listened when, over the decades, there were stories about deaths and burial sites, Lansdowne said.
Blackwater emphasizes that everyone has their own path to healing but, even though his route is forgiveness, he sometimes has difficulty forgiving the churches and government for their role in residential schools.
“They knew full well what was going on and the government knew full well what was going on, but they did nothing,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world and Indigenous issues, along with the politics around them.
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