Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
An Island residential school in the Salish Sea, so horrible that children would cling to logs to try to escape, is the focus of a new eight-part CBC podcast hosted by journalist Duncan McCue. Called Kuper Island, episodes will be released weekly beginning May 17.
McCue says he thought it was important to do a podcast because it's a very intimate medium where a lot of context can be shared.
“If you look in terms of offerings, there’s not much about residential schools. So I’m hoping that people will listen because they want to learn that history. … The podcast is about four children: three who survived and one who didn’t. And I hope that the courage of the survivors shines through for listeners.”
Last year when the announcements of unmarked graves began, news leaked from Penelakut that there were 160 unmarked graves at the former site of Kuper Island residential school.
“I think one of the reasons why Indigenous communities were so upset last summer, and why Penelakut is so upset and wants to do this work, is because the children were not only neglected in life, but they were neglected in death.”
Part of the reason for the podcast was to take listeners beyond the cold, hard numbers—how many children died at the residential school—to understand that these were children with hopes and dreams.
“Because I had been a reporter in British Columbia for a long time, a couple of decades, I had heard a lot of bad things about the Kuper Island school,” McCue says. “I was certainly aware of its reputation. It was a notorious place. So it struck me that this was a particular site that we should be paying some attention to.”
The Kuper Island school opened in 1889, not closing until 1975. In its first three decades, 40 per cent of the children died. A 1916 survey showed that 107 of 264 students who had attended up to that point had died.
“The numbers of deaths there were extraordinarily high,” McCue says. “The Kuper Island school had one of the highest rates of sexual abuse complaints coming out of it. There were a number of runaways that tried to get away, and this is a school that’s on an island in the Salish Sea. So you have to ask yourself, ‘Why were they trying to get away?’ It's a place that survivors have described as Alcatraz.”
McCue and producers Jodie Martinson and Martha Troian set out in August 2021, returning many times over the following months, to speak with survivors and community members of Penelakut.
Early on in the research, McCue had a conversation with former Chief Jill Harris who spoke of the experience of community members dealing with the spirits of children 20 years ago.
“That really stood out because it’s something that we haven’t heard much of in this discussion of unmarked graves is the spiritual pain the First Nations communities have had to deal with,” McCue says.
“I think that spirit wound needs to be talked about. It’s something that we as Indigenous people talk about. … But it’s something that non-Indigenous people don’t necessarily understand or that Indigenous communities may be rightly reticent to share with non-Indigenous journalists because of the history of misrepresentation in the media.”
Penelakut is also one of the first communities to work with ground-penetrating radar, beginning in 2014, long before headlines about unmarked graves began in 2021. The team thought it was important to share the community's experience.
“Sharing the story of Penelakut [will help] Canadians and other First Nations understand just how traumatizing this work has been. They’ve been at it for eight years now and they’re still tabulating results and trying to do the work in part because identifying where the unmarked graves were has brought up and resurfaced a lot of the trauma of what survivors experienced there.”
The team was concerned about reopening wounds when speaking with survivors, and McCue, who is Anishinaabe, was very conscious about making sure the work was done in a trauma-informed way as much as possible. They met with the Penelakut Elders committee at the outset of the project and explained what a podcast is and that they weren’t just showing up for a quick interview and leaving again, but would be in the community multiple times talking to many survivors.
“I didn’t want to make the pain worse. That wasn’t my intention,” McCue says. “The survivors that we ended up speaking with, we made sure that these were people that had already taken some measures towards their healing journey.”
For an audience who may not have heard much about residential schools before, McCue is hopeful the podcast will make an impact. For those from First Nations who have heard the stories for years, the focus is more on healing and even finding encouragement to conduct their own GPR work.
“Dwelling on the horrors that occurred at residential school is an ugly place, but it’s really important for Canadians to understand this part of, not only our history—you hear that this is a dark chapter in Canada’s history—but our ongoing narrative. It isn’t just a chapter. It’s the whole story.”
Kuper Island will be available at : https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/1062-kuper-island and everywhere podcasts are available.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.