Search for potential human burial sites begins at former Vancouver Island Indian residential school

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

The Tseshaht First Nation, located on central Vancouver Island, has begun the search for unmarked burial sites at a former residential school on its territory. 

On Tuesday, the search began, using ground-penetrating radar, a technique employed by dozens of First Nations across Canada embarking on similar searches. 

Elected Chief Ken Watts, who also goes by Wahmeesh, said the Tseshaht First Nation in collaboration with survivors from the Alberni Indian Residential School, has been working on launching a search since last summer. 

“We’ve been on a journey as a nation and a former host of where the residential school has been in our territory, a school that we never asked for, but a school we’ve had to live with as an open wound,” he told All Points West host Robyn Burns. 

“We’re here to get the answers that survivors and those that didn’t make it home need and deserve.”

How ground-penetrating radar works

Ground-penetrating radar is being used by Indigenous communities to pinpoint unmarked graves near former residential school sites. Here’s everything you need to know about the technology behind these discoveries.

According to the Tseshaht First Nation, children from more than 100 First Nations across B.C. were forced to attend the Alberni Indian Residential School during its operation from 1900 to 1973.

In May 2021, the T’kemlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had identified an estimated 200 potential burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Since its announcement, hundreds more potential sites have been identified across Canada.

Wahmeesh said this search, which will last two weeks, will be the first of many phases. They intend to search 100 hectares in total. 

Research into the history of the school and interviews with survivors helped the First Nation determine which areas are the biggest priority for the search. 

“As a child growing up in our community, anybody that grew up in the Tseshaht community would tell you they’ve heard these stories before about potential unmarked graves and burials of students,” Wahmeesh said. “We’re really bringing it to light.”

A monument featuring metal work depicting children and Indigenous designs.
A monument created by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Connie Watts was erected in 2014 at the site of the former Alberni Indian Residential School. (Submitted by the Tseshaht First Nation)

Wahmeesh doesn’t expect to have results from the search until the fall. Before they make the results public, he will first notify members and survivors, as is often the case for First Nations sharing the findings of these searches. 

Next steps once the results are in have yet to be determined. Wahmeesh said the Tseshaht First Nation and survivors will work together to cross that bridge when they get there. 

“It’s a difficult thing to even talk about because we’re really supposed to let those that are no longer with us rest, and we’re not really supposed to disturb them. 

“That’s going to be up to our community and how we want to move forward. It’s in our backyard, and it’s something we’re going to have to live with.”

7:55The Tseshaht First Nation has begun scanning for potential human burial sites on the former site of the Alberni Indian Residential School

Tseshaht First Nation elected Chief Ken Watts spoke with Robyn Burns about the work that has begun to scan for potential burial sites at locations connected with the former Alberni Indian Residential School site.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Back To Top