Photo Credit: Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre Archive

Turning a Negative into a Positive

Tseshaht chief councillor calls for old residential school to be replaced

First Nation seeking funding demolish residential school and to build a healing centre and new gymnasium for survivors

Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni wants a healing centre built on the site of the former Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS).

Ken Watts, elected chief councillor for the Tseshaht, said his people hope to see the remaining buildings demolished and replaced with a health and wellness multiplex, and a new gymnasium.

“Our goal has always been to build something new,” Watts said in a story reported June 7 in the North Island Gazette. “We want people to look at Tseshaht as a place that supported them, not a place that caused harm. The impacts of that place went far beyond our community. We want to turn around the story and create a positive space.”

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns supports the initiative. On June 1, he brought a request from Tseshaht First Nation to the House of Commons, asking for federal government resources to complete demolition and to build a healing centre for survivors.”

Chief Watts isn’t stopping there. He also expects Ottawa to pay for a ground-penetrating radar search of residential school grounds and more research into the church, RCMP and government records related to the school.

“It was placed in our backyard,” Watts said. “We never consented to it being there and the atrocities that were committed there. We need to do some research, and we shouldn’t have to pay a dollar out of our own pockets for that research.”

AIRS closed for good in 1973. The Peake Hall student dormitory at AIRS was demolished in 2009, but several buildings still stand on the Tseshaht reserve that was part of the residential school system.

Watts acknowledged the work of the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation for bringing the tragic residential school histories to light.

“This has opened up a lot of wounds,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about the survivors–they’ve been on my mind so much this past week.”

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 30 students are confirmed to have died at the Alberni Indian Residential School.

Yet, Canada has never fully accounted for how many children died at residential schools across the country. The Commission notes that records were destroyed, went missing and that the deaths of many children simply went unrecorded.