'We knew it was there': Former B.C. chief says unmarked graves near Cranbrook need more context

A First Nation in Cranbrook, B.C., has announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves near a former residential school. But one community leader says the finding isn’t quite the same as others across Canada. Blake Lough reports.

WARNING: Some details in this story may be disturbing to some people.

The detection of human remains in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in B.C. was not an unexpected discovery, according to the area’s former chief.

On Wednesday, it was confirmed that ground-penetrating radar found 182 unmarked graves in a cemetery at the site of the former Kootenay Residential School at St. Eugene Mission just outside Cranbrook, B.C.

The remains were found when remedial work was being performed in the area to replace the fence at the cemetery last year.

Sophie Pierre, former chief of the St Mary’s Indian Band and a survivor of the school itself, told Global News that while the news of the unmarked graves had a painful impact on her and surrounding communities, they had always known the graves were there.

“There’s no discovery, we knew it was there, it’s a graveyard,” Pierre said. “The fact there are graves inside a graveyard shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”

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182 human remains in unmarked graves found at site of former residential school in Cranbrook, B.C.

According to Pierre, wooden crosses that originally marked the gravesites had been burned or deteriorated over the years.  Using a wooden marker at a gravesite remains a practice that continues to this day in many Indigenous communities across Canada.

Radar technology was brought in by the community in an effort to identify those buried in the cemetery and to re-mark the gravesite.

“I don’t know where my grandparents are lying in there,” Pierre said. “All of those names, we will put markers so that we know there’s a gravesite here and so we won’t disturb it.”

The unmarked graves were first reported by the Lower Kootenay Band, a sister band, which said some of the remains were buried in shallow graves only three and four feet deep.

The band believes the remains are from the member bands of the Ktunaxa Nation, neighbouring First Nations communities and the community of ʔaq̓am.

The cemetery sits about 150 meters from the former residential school, which was in operation between 1912 and 1970. It is now a luxurious golf resort owned by five local area bands.

At the time it was mandated by law that all Indigenous children living in the area between the ages of seven and 15 were to attend the school.

According to the Lower Kootenay Band, many of the children “received cruel and sometimes fatal treatment.”

Pierre said while there is a possibility there are some children who attended the school were buried in the cemetery, more work is required to confirm those details.

“There could very well be, and in good likelihood, some children that were in the residential school that died here because of TB or other diseases, and were buried there,” Pierre said. “But it’s a graveyard.”

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Hundreds of unmarked graves, many believed to be children, have been found near residential school sites across the country recently, including in Kamloops, B.C., and the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Pierre acknowledged uncovering those graves is important work, and sheds light on the traumatic history and reality for Indigenous peoples across Canada.

However, she said the findings at the cemetery near Cranbrook isn’t the same as the other findings at other residential schools throughout the country.

“What happened in these other places is these remains have been found not in graveyards, that’s the big difference,” Pierre said. “It’s horrible.”

The concern for Pierre is that the term “unmarked grave” is now so closely associated with victims of Canada’s residential school system.

“To just assume that every unmarked grave inside a graveyard is already tied to a residential school, we’ve got to be a little bit more respectful of our people who are buried in our graveyards,” Pierre said.

The graveyard near Cranbrook originally dates back to Christian missionaries who settled in the area in the early 1800s, prior to the construction of the school.  A church and a hospital were also built in the area.

It eventually became a graveyard for the community, which it remains to this day.

“We just buried one of our people there last month,” Pierre said. “Anyone who died in my community would be buried there.”

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Pierre said she hopes radar technology could be used on the grounds of the former residential school, but that will require the support of all five bands that share ownership in the resort, as well as financial supports from the federal government.

The cemetery was declared protected land during the development of the resort and the community acts as caretakers for the site.

On Thursday, community members placed neon coloured tape across the gate to the cemetery, and are urging people coming to pay their respects to do so from a distance.

As a memorial outside the former residential school continues to grow, Pierre said she hopes the discoveries happening across the country are an “awakening for Canadians” that results in change.

“It’s my fervent hope that this awakening is not just something temporary to assuage someone’s conscience,” Pierre said.

“That in fact, it is real, and there’s going to be a determination to ensure that the true history of Canada and the Indigenous people in this country becomes part of who we are as Canadians.”

–With files from Global News’ Blake Lough

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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