TORONTO — Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing.
A survivor of the former Kuper Island residential school says First Nations across Canada expect to hear about the discoveries of unmarked graves for years to come.
Steve Sxwithul’Txw, who attended the Kuper Island Industrial School on what is now called Penelakut Island, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday that he can “pretty much guarantee” that every former residential school in Canada has an unmarked burial site.
“We’re preparing as First Nations people here, and I know myself and my family, we’re preparing for an announcement every month to two months over the next number of years and I think that Canada has to prepare themselves for this,” Sxwithul’Txw said.
His comments come after more than 160 unmarked graves were found near the former residential school in B.C. on Monday.
In May, 215 unmarked graves were discovered in Kamloops, followed by the finding of 751 unmarked graves at a residential school in Saskatchewan and the discovery of 182 human remains near a former institution in Cranbrook.
- Indigenous crisis support: Where to find help
- Click here for first-hand accounts from residential school survivors
The Kuper Island Industrial School was a Catholic-operated institution and ran from 1890 until 1975 on the small island off the coast of Vancouver Island.
Sxwithul’Txw said the news of the graves was “obviously upsetting,” but it didn’t catch him off guard.
“I was expecting this since the start of the announcements that happened last month and have continued,” he explained. “It was just a matter of time before we had heard back from my First Nation that they’ve located some unmarked graves.”
Since children endured years of abuse while at residential schools, Sxwithul’Txw said it is not surprising that those who ran the institutions also treated them poorly in death.
“The children never got to return home. [Families] were just told that something happened to them, and they passed away and they were buried,” he said.
Sxwithul’Txw attended the school for one year in 1970 when he was five years old.
While he acknowledged that other survivors attended the school for much long than him, including his own sisters, Sxwithul’Txw said one year “was long enough.”
He said he felt alone at the school and ran away “a number of times,” but was always found.
“There’s nowhere to run, especially at five years old. It’s hard to navigate your way on an island that is surrounded by water,” Sxwithul’Txw said.
“Many survivors tried to swim their way off the island back in the day, but never made it,” he added.
Even though he was only at the former residential school for a year, Sxwithul’Txw said the experience has shaped the rest of his life.
“It wasn’t a school; it’s an institution and it was meant to demean you of being First Nations in every cultural aspect that you know. So it changed me as a person and the healing for myself and my family continues every day,” Sxwithul’Txw said.
He said the residential school system is a “sad legacy for Canada” in its treatment if Indigenous peoples, but hopes news of these unmarked graves pushes the federal government to do more in moving towards reconciliation.
“Having this information out in the open is a great first step for non-Indigenous Canadians to embrace the history, the colonial history and understanding it,” Sxwithul’Txw said.
Eddy Charlie, who is also a survivor of the Kuper residential school, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday he noticed children at the school had suddenly “disappeared” and was left wondering where they had gone.
“I used to sit in the cafeteria and see the empty tables and wonder where all the students were disappearing to,” Charlie said. “When we were going upstairs to our living unit, I used to see empty beds and I got really curious where all the boys were going because I knew they weren’t letting any of us go home.”
Charlie said he experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse while at the former residential school. He said the students were beaten whenever they spoke their own language or participated in any songs or traditions that were passed down to them from their ancestors.
“Even today, almost 50 years after I left Kuper Island, I still feel the trauma and the pain of the experience,” he said, adding that it is difficult for him to talk about his experience at the school.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about this, but I really need people to know and understand that it wasn’t just me that this was happening to,” Charlie said. “It was not a one-time act.”
With at least 145 residential schools across Canada, Charlie says thousands of Indigenous children were abused at these institutions and years later, brought that trauma back to their communities.
“Today we’re still suffering the effects of that trauma and… all the violence that we experienced [is] passed down to our children and grandchildren,” he explained.
Charlie said he suffered so much abuse while at the residential school that he tried to take his own life.
“Some of the kids were pushing a log down the hill, and I just heard a voice inside my head and I stepped in front of that log,” Charlie said.
“They called it an accident and I didn’t bother contradicting them, because it was too painful to think about,” he added.
Charlie said he regrets not speaking out about the abuse he endured at the school sooner, and wonders if it could have spared other children from the same horrors.
“I’ll never know and I’ll always carry that burden with me wherever I go,” Charlie said.
Charlie said it is important for the federal government to acknowledge that the abuse committed at residential schools constitutes genocide and that systemic racism exists in Canada.
“I just hope that one day, our children and grandchildren can walk down the street without fear and have a sense of equality,” he said.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.