Remembering the children of Kuper Island

Photo: June 19, 1941 view of Kuper Island Indian Residential School

In the early 1980s my family and I put our kayaks in at Southey Point for the short crossing to Kuper Island, as it was called then. Circumnavigating Kuper, we passed the village and ferry dock on the island’s west side, coming face to face with the shuttered hulk of the Kuper Island Indian Residential School. Hunched on the hilltop overlooking the shore, the three-storey red-brick edifice – closed in 1975 and yet to be demolished by the Penelakut Tribe – seemed to exude menace even then.

At the time I thought I had a fair idea of the forced assimilation and abuse of Indian children under Roman Catholic administration, and while horrific I somehow imagined the trauma to a regrettable, but closed chapter of Canada’s now-distant past. My understanding of its ongoing and insidious nature deepened in the ensuing years as I engaged with Elders from the surrounding Indigenous communities, working to build community-to-community relations and to protect sacred burial sites at Syuhe’men (Walkers Hook) and Grace Islet.

Then this past year, it struck home: that nearly every single Elder I know or have known had endured the horrors of residential school, and not just any school, but this one, on Kuper Island. ‘Incarcerated’ is the term Penelakut Elder Myrus James uses to describe his own experience there. Men and women my own age, scarred forever across a bit of water, while I went to school on another planet.

Recently I’ve learned a few of Salt Spring’s connections with ‘our’ residential school, where - in the words of intergenerational survivor Rocky James – kids “were raised by clinically-diagnosable sociopaths.”

- Annie Lena Pappenberger was born on Salt Spring and died in 1910, aged sixteen. Her name is on a list prepared by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of children who died at the Kuper Island School. Her parents carried their loss for a full fifty years before they themselves died and were buried at St Paul’s cemetery in Fulford: Mary Ann Pielle, a Penelakut woman, who like many of her people became ‘country wives’ of settlers to this island, and John Pappenburger, who pre-empted a farm at Beaver Point and was the first mail carrier there.

- The Kuper Island School Band, “a brass ensemble of uniformed native students from the Roman Catholic Residential School on Kuper Island”, were regularly invited to perform at events on Salt Spring Island, from the 1902 opening of the Agricultural Hall (thereafter renamed Mahon Hall) and the 1917 unveiling of the “Shrine” in Ganges for the local boys sent off to the Great War, a precursor to the Cenotaph. In 1967 the Kuper Island Band was hosted by the Salt Spring Lions Club to perform at the opening of Pioneer Village, an event to raise money to send the band to Expo 67 (for more about the band, and the school, see Duncan McCue’s excellent and heart-opening CBC podcast “Kuper Island”).

- More recently, the boy’s soccer team from Kuper would play in tournaments against teams here on the island. And beat them, too, I’m told.

And then last summer, amid the awakening of non-indigenous Canadians to the untold numbers of children who never came home from the schools, Myrus James and the Penelakut Sulxwe’en Elders Group called for a March For The Children. On the day, the Penelakut organizers were overwhelmed by the thousands of supporters who turned out to walk from the Chemainus ferry dock up to Waterwheel Park. A sea of orange shirts – Indigenous Elders and leaders, non-Indigenous folks and families from up and down the Big Island. Heartfelt speeches, prayers, songs and stories shared from the tiny stage in the park.

And now a year has passed. Will we remember those children, or have we moved on to other concerns? Will Salt Spring Islanders take up this year’s invitation to gather again with our neighbours, to stand up with them, to support them in their healing and deepen our friendship and connection?

Please mark your calendars: Monday August 1st, meet at the Chemainus ferry terminal / Chemainus Salish Sea Market at 8:30am (the 7:05 sailing from Vesuvius will get us there in time).

July 28, 2022 7:48 PM