VICTORIA — A residential school survivor who attended the Kuper Island School is shocked and saddened by the discovery of 160 unmarked graves on Penelakut Island, formerly known as Kuper Island, near Chemainus, B.C.
The school was open from 1890 to 1975, and was notoriously hard on students.
Survivor Eddy Charlie says he attended the school when he was young, and was shocked to learn that 160 remains were found recently.
Before the graves were identified this summer, records kept by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation said 121 students were confirmed to have died at the school.
“It really shocked me to hear the number, 160, at Kuper Island because they had already found a number of students at that school in the past,” Charlie told CTV News on Monday.
“I thought that would be it, and then they found 160, and I was just utterly shocked,” he said.
Charlie says he remembers noticing students going missing while he lived at the residential school.
“I remember sitting at a cafeteria table at feeding time and noticing that tables that used to be full were starting to get empty,” he said.
He adds that he remembers going to sleep at night and noticing more and more empty beds in the once-full living units.
“I started to get curious, ‘Where are these guys going?'” he said.
“I knew that (the) residential school was not letting any of us go home. So where were these guys going? But now I know. After they found the 160 bodies, I know where these children disappeared to now,” he said.
Charlie says the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools is still being felt across Canada today.
“The best explanation I can give you is, if I put my hand over Kristen’s hand (a relative that was there with Charlie), and then I put some water on top of my hand and it runs down, my hand is wet and now Kristen’s hand is wet too,” he said.
He adds that when he walks through the streets of Victoria, he still feels like the colour of his skin separates him from the rest of Canadian society.
Moving forward, Charlie says he wants the provincial and federal governments to step up and announce what they will do to help Indigenous people reeling from the realities of residential schools.
He says it’s important for governments to take firm and clear stances on what they will do to support survivors, because the current conversation about residential schools is being dominated by survivors, who may find the events triggering.
“I think the biggest step towards healing is having conversations,” he said. “So far, the only conversations have been coming from residential school survivors, and people who were hurt.”
Since the discovery of the 160 unmarked graves on Penelakut Island was announced, the Penelakut Tribe has said it will be hosting two healing sessions in the weeks to come.
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.