B.C. residential school survivor says First Nations expect to hear of mass grave discoveries in Canada for years to come

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TORONTO —
A survivor of the former Kuper Island residential school says First Nations across Canada expect to hear about mass 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 a gravesite.

“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.

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.

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.

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