Category Archives: Residential Schools

Canada’s Alcatraz: Kuper Island Residential School


Penelakut Island, formerly known as Kuper Island and renamed in 2010 in honour of the Penelakut First Nation people, is located in the southern Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland Pacific coast of British Columbia, Canada.  The Penelakut First Nation people are part of a larger group called Hul’qumi’num people. The island has a population of about 300 members of the Penelakut Band. It is not a large community, but it has suffered largely. Through no fault of its own.

The island and the Indian Residential School were the subject of a CBC radio series turned into podcasts. It is worth listening to it.


The host of the show, Duncan McCue travelled to Penelakut where the Kuper Island Residential School was located.  Some people called the school “Alcatraz.”  Think about that for a moment. A school supported by a church and the government of Canada was called Alcatraz. Canada’s Alcatraz.


Long after the Kuper Island Residential School was torn down, the survivors are still haunted by what happened there. Investigative reporter Duncan McCue of the CBC  exposed buried police investigations, confronted perpetrators of abuse as well as victims of abuse.  He also witnessed a community trying to rebuild — literally on top of the old school’s ruins and the unmarked graves of Indigenous children. The podcast he helped produce is well worth listening to as long as you can stand uncomfortable truths. I know that many of us can’t while others are tired of hearing about them. Some of these say, ‘Why can’t we get over it?’

That is a good question. Others say that their people also suffered abuse. Mennonites, for example, in some cases make such claims too. And they are right. But I don’t want to get into a suffering Olympics.  The point is not who suffered worse. I just want to point out it is difficult for survivors of residential schools, and even their descendants who have suffered inter-generational trauma, to  “get over it.”  We should learn about what happened to them first. The rest of us should be sympathetic before we become critical. Not many people in Canada had inflicted upon them schools where they had to attend even though they were designed to disparage their parents, inflict physical, emotional, and sexual abuse upon the children.  These schools were part of a Canadian system of oppression. Some even called it genocide. Who knows how we would react to such a situation.


The rest of us are lucky sit didn’t happen to them. Even though this happened for many decades, it was kept secret. I went to school in Canada for 20 years, including 7 years at university, and never heard of it once until after I had left that university. When I first heard about residential schools  found it hard to believe and later I thought it was a case of a few bad apples. It was more than that. More than 130 residential schools operated across Canada. As the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has described them, “The schools were a deliberate attempt to destroy Indigenous communities and ways of life. They were part of a broader process of colonization and genocide.”

I have read the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. I recommend all Canadians do the same. This history was hidden from us. I want to learn about that history. I think it is important for us to know that history.

Right now, I ust want to look at what happened in one residential school.  1 school out of 130. It was Kuper Island Residential School.


Genocide Repudiated


The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””


Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”



And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,


As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”


But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”


Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.