Latest reports of unmarked graves lack important context says former Aqam chief

For a country coming to terms with a painful past, the announcement of 182 unmarked graves identified next to a former residential school was immediately horrific.

"Every time there's those words come out: 'unmarked grave,' people jump on it and think 'oh, it's got to do with the residential schools,'" says Sophie Pierre, who served as chief of the Aqam community for 26 years.

But she says the context of those people's remains is far more complicated than first reported. She says although well-intentioned, the reports were painful to her and many others in the small community just north of Cranbrook. It demonstrates the difficulty of coming to terms with the often horrifying history of the settler-Indigenous relationship.

"It says to me that I think Canadians are finally hearing it, because of course we've been saying this for decades," she says.

The site where the remains were located about 200 metres south of St Eugene Mission, a residential school that operated between 1912 and 1970. It's now a golf club and luxury resort operated by the Aqam band.

For nearly 60 years it housed about 150 indigenous children at a time.

The nearby site has been a graveyard for the small community since at least the mid-1800's, and for 25 years sat next to a regional hospital. Most if not all graves were marked with wooden headstones that have long since rotted away or been destroyed by grass fires.

"Including my grandmother and my grandfather - because they're buried in there and I don't know where their sites are because the crosses burnt down," Pierre recalls.

"I don't think there's any doubt that there are probably some children who went to school here and died and are buried in that graveyard, but it's not 182."

When replacing the fence around the community grave yard in 2019, an unmarked grave was accidentally disturbed.

"(We) realized we have to stop this and find out where all these sites are," she recalls.

A ground penetrating radar operator was called in to survey the site and locate as many remains as possible. Some were just a metre below the surface. The community is now working on its next steps to permanently mark the graves.

Last week news of the documented sites was shared with other bands of the Ktunaxa First Nation. On Wednesday Chief Jason Louie shared the news in a Facebook post, where he also spoke of the long-lasting pain caused by the Residential School System.

Chief Louie says about 100 of his community's members attended the school over the years.

STORY OF RESILIENCE

Like others across Canada, the residential school took Indigenous children between the ages of five and 15 years old. Their hair was cut. Their clothes were taken away. The food was different. The rich spirituality and society developed over at least 12,000 years taken away.

As a young girl of five or six, Pierre stood in its halls for her first day of school.

"I went here for nine years. So every time this comes out, it affects me personally," she says, becoming emotional. "I think 'dammit I'm not a victim! I'm not an eff-ing victim."

Speaking in front of the former school, her long time confidant and advisor Gwen Phillips recounts the story of a close relative who ran away one year, up and over the steep dry mountains and back to her community. The girl was caught, taken back to the school where Phillips says she was tied to a bed frame for two days and beaten.

A small statue and plaque sit in front of the vine-covered stone building, showing a boy and girl standing at attention.

After it closed in 1970, Pierre says the building fell into disrepair, sitting like an open wound in the middle of the community.

But around 1990, some of those children walked back into the former school with a purpose.

"Our elder told us that - Mary Paul was her name - she told us that if thought we had lost so much in that school - which we did - to go back in there and get it," Pierre recalls.

The community learned to cut glass and perform repairs to the stonework, transforming the building. In 2000 it opened as an upscale resort. The place that had for so long crushed pride and spirit was now starting to give it back.

Pierre says the community is proud of the beautiful building and its comfortable amenities. In some ways, it has also become a school again, an accessible way to learn both truth and reconciliation.

"You want to learn how and you want to learn the real truth? Come here to St Eugene's and we'll help you learn that."