CBC’s new podcast reveals hidden stories behind the unmarked graves on Penelakut Island

Investigative journalist Duncan McCue talks gruesome findings and rebuilding efforts on the school grounds.

Ever since the Penelakut Tribe discovered some 200 child graves on the grounds of a former residential school last summer, Anishinaabe investigative journalists Duncan McCue and Martha Troian, along with journalist and producer Jodie Martinson, decided to bear witness to the stories behind those deaths and the community that’s trying to rebuild on the land today.  

The Kuper Island school that survivors refer to as Alcatraz saw nearly 40 percent of students die in the first three decades of its existence. “It’s a place that children were running away from even though it’s an island in the Salish sea,” says McCue, who has been a CBC reporter for 20 years, and who is a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation just north of Toronto.  

Over the course of their 10-month investigation, the level of sexual abuse taking place at the school throughout its 85-year history became crystal clear. McCue shares one such example: in 1939, a police officer did a full investigation with over 50 statements from children claiming that they were being abused. Instead of following through with criminal charges and a trial, the department of Indian Affairs officials and the Catholic officials dismissed accused employees and sent them out of province so no trial could proceed. The main concern was bad publicity.  

The point of CBC’s eight-part Kuper Island series is to help listeners understand that these were children who had families—families that are still affected and continuing to look for answers today. The one instructor who was charged (and who pled guilty to multiple charges) will be part of the conversation in the later episodes of the podcast.  

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When the school was torn down, the Penelakut community needed housing and ended up having to rebuild on the site of the former Kuper Island school grounds. “That raised a lot of concerns,” says McCue. “Survivors have to travel through that area on a daily basis, whether it’s to line up on the ferry or to go to the longhouse or the health centre. It’s very triggering certainly for the survivors, but also for intergenerational survivors who have been impacted by this legacy as well.” Co-producer Troian, who is from Lac Seul First Nation with connections to Wabauskang First Nation, is an intergenerational survivor herself, as her mother had been to a residential school.   

Healing is going to take time and it’s going to cost money, so McCue and his team hope that the podcast, which is currently number one on Canadian Apple Podcast charts, sheds light on how important the legacy of residential schools remains today. Community efforts to rebuild and honour children that never came home aren’t just a reality in B.C.—there were over 100 residential schools in Canada, notes McCue.  

“There are First Nations communities across this country who are engaged in the same process of trying to heal and memorialize their children. These children were not only neglected in life, but they were neglected in death as well.”