It was erected to honor residential school survivors, but instead the monument to former students has itself become a victim—scratched and broken, desecrated by vandals.
RCMP investigators in Port Alberni, British Columbia are looking for whoever vandalized a memorial commemorating survivors who went to the Alberni Indian Residential School.
The vandalism occurred on June 27 between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., RCMP Corporal Scott MacLeod said. No suspects have been identified, and police have asked for the public’s help in its investigation.
The memorial was created by Tseshaht artist Connie Watts and is located on the Tseshaht reserve, where the school once stood. The piece is circular, with a roof, and has a central pole with sub-poles supporting a winged roof that is structured to collect and channel away tears. The poles are adorned with steel child figures, and the cement base has children’s handprints on the surface. One of the figures depicting a child was torn from its base, and some of the other figures were scratched. The damaged child figure was recovered at the scene and is being held at the tribe’s offices. Tseshaht officials were not available for comment.
Alberni Indian Residential School opened in 1891. It burned down twice: in 1917 and 1937, and was rebuilt in 1920 and 1939. The school closed in 1973. It was one of about 130 schools that were run, mainly by churches, between the 1870s and 1996, when the last one closed. Thousands of students died there, many of those deaths never officially brought to light.
Legions of students suffered abuse, sexual and otherwise, at the schools, and the Alberni school was no exception. In 1995, former supervisor Arthur Henry Plint was convicted on 18 counts of indecent assault against aboriginal students. And last year, University of Guelph researcher Ian Mosby revealed that AIRS students were deliberately malnourished as part of nutritional experiments between 1947 and 1952.
Federal policy required that aboriginal children attend and in most cases live in residential schools for 10 months out of the year. Students were not allowed to speak their language or practice their customs.
The vandalism shocked Huu-ay-aht First Nation member Benson Nookmis, 79, who attended AIRS from 1932-1947.
“You’re kidding me—someone actually did that? That’s terrible,” Nookmis said.
Loneliness and hunger characterized his stay there, Nookmis said, and he speaks little about his experience.
“I’ve been in counseling over the years to try and work through it,” he said. “I can talk about it a little more now.”
Nookmis was not initially aware that a memorial had been created.
“But I’m honored to know that someone did something like that for us,” he said, noting how senseless the act was, striking as it does at the hearts of survivors moreso than anyone else.
“I guess it’s because we experienced an awful thing there,” he said of the hold the experience has on him. “You never forget it.”
He speculated as to whether the vandals had read the memorial plaques affixed to the structure before damaging it. He wondered if the words would have been enough to give them a change of heart had they done so.
“If they read the plaque they’d have known who and what it was there for,” Nookmis said. “It’s too bad that people have to do things like this. They have no respect.”