Port Alberni was home to the Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS), which opened in 1893 as the Alberni Girls Home and closed in 1973 as the Alberni Student Residence. Indigenous children from West Coast First Nations and communities in northern B.C. were forced to attend AIRS, including my parents, their siblings and their parents. I myself never went to residential school; instead, I lived at home and attended Alberni Elementary School from 1969 to 1977, though I remember seeing kids who lived at AIRS getting bussed to my public school.
During my trip in Alberni, I visited the site where AIRS’ now-defunct main building, gym and dormitories used to be. Several structures were demolished after the school was shut down in 1973, and their stone remains reminded me of bombed-out buildings I saw in a Life magazine story about a war-torn city. In ensuing years, the Nuuchahnulth Tribal Council built its new offices on the site and also use the former girls' dorm as office space, the Tseshaht First Nation now use the former gym for community meetings and recreation, and a First Nations-themed memorial stands near the former boys’ dorm, which was torn down in 2009.
I stood overlooking the site early on a Friday evening, and wondered where the staff kitchen used to be. My late mother was a server there while attending AIRS, but the only story she ever told me about her time at residential school involved bringing scraps to the garbage after staff meals — only to see Indigenous children waiting to eat them. As I took in the site, I also remembered accompanying a former AIRS student who went pale and sweated profusely upon looking through the window of his old dorm supervisor’s office in 2009. He died a few years later before the word “reconciliation” became common parlance.
On my way back to town, I stopped by the roadside and looked across the Somass River; there, through the lush trees (which would’ve been sparser when my father was forced to attend residential school), I could make out where AIRS’ main building once stood. I wondered how many times he must’ve looked longingly across the river at his home in the Hupacasath First Nation — and likewise, how many times my father’s parents must’ve looked across the river at the residential school and worried about him. One thing I haven’t figured out yet is why AIRS was built specifically in Port Alberni, and not another city on Vancouver Island. Do you know, or have any leads? Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you liked reading this, please tell your friends to subscribe.
Thanks for joining me on this journey of reconciliation, Wawmeesh