Last week, the Penelakut Tribe, a First Nations community in British Columbia, Canada, announced the discovery of more than 160 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kuper Island Industrial School,
a residential school previously run by the Catholic Church. The graves were found on the grounds and foreshore of the school, which was located on Penelakut Island, formerly known as "Canada’s Alcatraz."
The exact time and method of the discovery were not specified. The island was renamed "Penelakut Island" in 2010 to honor the Penelakut Tribe. The tribe has invited the public to join them in raising awareness about the school and the unmarked graves. They will be hosting a "March for the Children" on August 2 and healing sessions for Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies.
The Kuper Island Industrial School was operational from 1890 to 1975. Initially, it was managed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria, later by the Missionaries of the Company of Mary, and then by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Canadian government took over the school in 1969, and the building was demolished in 1980.
The residential school system was established by the Canadian federal government in the 1870s to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. The last federally-run school closed in 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to report on the history of the residential schools, described the system as part of a policy of "cultural genocide."
The commission recorded death records for 120 students at the Kuper Island school, including two sisters who drowned in 1959 while trying to escape. There were also documented or suspected cases of sexual abuse of students at the school.
The remote location of the island led to comparisons with Alcatraz, a former federal prison located on an island off the coast of San Francisco. Several children drowned trying to escape the school. In the 1930s, doctors conducted medical experiments on children at the school, according to the archives of the Royal British Columbia Museum.
The announcement of the discovery of unmarked graves at Kuper Island follows similar discoveries at other former residential school sites across Canada. More than two-thirds of the residential schools in Canada were run by Catholics or members of Catholic religious orders.
In recent weeks, several Catholic and Christian churches in Canada, many of them on tribal lands, have been set ablaze in fires deemed either “suspicious” or cases of arson. Some Indigenous leaders have condemned the fires as unacceptable reactions to the discoveries of unmarked graves at former Catholic-run institutions.
"An 1896 survey reported that of 264 former students at Kuper Island, 107 of them had died."