Editor’s note: This article contains details about experiences at residential schools in B.C. and may be triggering to readers. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is offering toll-free 24-hour telephone support for survivors and their families at 1 (866)
Ahousaht First Nation set sail last week on the emotional process of researching and acknowledging the children who attended the two Indian Residential Schools (IRS) within their territory: Ahousaht Residential School on Flores (1904 to 1940) and old Christie Indian Residential School on Meares Island (1900 to 1971).
“Ahousaht is taking steps to find those who did not make it back home from these two school sites. We have a work plan being developed that includes interviewing former students, reviewing records from church and government archives, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) surveys and other methods of searching the terrain surrounding these sites,” said Chief Greg Louie in a media release.
Anne Atleo, Ahousaht citizen and former manager of administration for the nation, is transitioning into the role of Ahousaht Residential School project research manager.
“The centre of this whole project is the children. The children are who the leadership are looking to take care of in a good way,” said Atleo.
“We are mindful of the multi-generational trauma we’ve experienced as a result of our grandparents or great parents and in some instances our parents and colleagues. There is child in each of us that we are all taking care of. When we are talking about the children, we are talking about the children of the past and also the children now and the children that are coming,” she said.
The Ahousaht IRS was operated by the United Church of Canada on behalf of the Government of Canada for 35 years. It is difficult to estimate how many children were sent to Ahousaht IRS during that time, but Atleo suggests it might be approximately 1,750. The old Christie IRS or Kakawis operated by the Roman Catholic Church on behalf of the Government of Canada was much bigger and stayed open for approximately 70 years.
“Hundreds of children went to that school. How many students were younger than five years? We know that some were taken from their homes as young as three years old,” said Atleo. “We can feel the weight of the work that we’ve embarked and we’ve anticipated this.”
She says she is very humble and honoured to be overseeing the project on behalf of the community. In the mid-1990s after finishing her studies at UCB, Atleo received the Nuu-chah-nulth name ‘Hiyuuqwi’yatuuk’sish’, which translates to “200 voices behind me”.
“We have a real strong belief that our creator makes way for things to happen,” Atleo said.
The old Christie Residential School, above, on Meares Island operated from 1900 to 1971. From 1971 to 1982, the new Christie Residential School was operated at the site that is now the Tin Wis Resort in Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations territory. (Archives Deschâtelets-NDC, Fonds Deschâtelets photo)
Melinda Swan is the Ahousaht councillor with portfolio on this project. She explained since there are several nations embarking on similar projects, they are developing a network to share and digitize information. The files they will be searching for are vast and include the Truth and Reconciliation Commission files, two or three different databases from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, police records, vital statistics records, archives in museums, and archives from the Catholic Church and the United Church.
“There is a lot of information that we need to sift through like all the other nations,” said Swan, who is a survivor of the new Christie IRS in Tofino, which ran from 1971 to 1983 after Kakawis on Meares Island closed down.
“Some of the things that are a priority are getting the interviews and the knowledge recorded, documented and collected. Our history is oral. Some people have shared their experience with their children or a friend so it’s passed on, and that is one of the key things that we need to start off with,” said Swan, adding that the GPR will come later.
“I am certain that we will find remains at both sites,” she said. “Even though other nations have started the process with GPR, we’ve learned that the GPR cannot be done in the rainy season that it’s preferred to do it in a dry season. You know how our rain is here in this region.”
This summer, Ahousaht received $75,000 from a GoFundMe campaign called ‘Find Our Lost Children’ launched after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation first announced its discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a residential school in Kamloops at the end of May.
Government applications are in process, with the B.C. government committing to fund up to $475,000 per site and the Government of Canada investing about $320 million in support funding to help Indigenous communities address missing children and burial sites of IRS.
Swan says their application to the province has been a tedious process because they have two sites and that the federal government says DNA testing will not be covered.
“We are advocating against that. Their label for this project is ‘Bringing the Children Home’ and that’s the only way we are going to be able to do it is through a DNA test. We’ve learned that the legal costs won’t be covered and we are going to need legal input to insure that things are done properly like how we would any loss,” Swan said.
Ahousaht has set a three-year target to complete the work, but Atleo is mindful that the work plan is a living document that will constantly evolve. Development at the Ahousaht IRS and the Lone Cone Hostel and Campground on Meares where the old Christie IRS existed has been stopped.
“We will be reaching out to our neighbours throughout Nuu-chah-nulth. We’ll be reaching out to our neighbours in the lower mainland. We know that it wasn’t only Ahousaht children that went to these schools. Some came as far as Nisga’a Nation. And every step of the way is working with a cultural and spiritual leaders,” said Atleo.
Former students or Residential School Survivors can contact Anne Atleo at Residentialschool.firstname.lastname@example.org or