The Penelakut Tribe of British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands claims to have discovered more than 160 “undocumented and unmarked” burials in the region, which previously housed the Kuper Island Residential School.
In a message published online on Monday morning, the tribe alerted neighboring First Nations communities of the finding. “We are encouraging you to join us in our endeavor to promote awareness of the Kuper Island Industrial School, as well as confirmation of the 160+ undocumented and unmarked burials on our grounds and shoreline,” read the announcement.
There were no more details offered. The tribe did not explain how the tombs were discovered, whether children’s bones were buried there, or whether ground-penetrating radar was employed. Officials did not reply to numerous interview requests.
From 1890 through the 1970s, the school was located on Penelakut Island, formerly known as Kuper Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands. It was managed by the Catholic Church and funded by the federal government. Eric Simons, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, has been studying with the Penelakut Tribe at the former school site since 2014.
The institution was dismantled in the 1980s, and Simons claims that the location has proved difficult for both scholars and the community. He said that the fact that people were aware of missing children being buried on the property but didn’t know where the graves were placed had caused “emotional and spiritual anguish.”
In the 1970s, Steve Sxwithul’txw, a member of the Penelakut Tribe, was compelled to attend the institution on Kuper Island. When the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation revealed the names of almost 3,000 children who died in residential schools in 2019, Sxwithul’txw realized eight had the same surname as him.
He believes there are likely other places on and around the island that were utilized as Catholic clergy burial grounds and may yet be investigated.